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St Augustine - City of God - Political Philosophy

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Augustine: Political and Social Philosophy

Augustine's 'City of God',. All rights reserved. Augustine does not wish ill for Rome. He sees Rome as the last bastion against the advances of the pagan barbarians, who surely must not be allowed to overrun the mortal embodiment of Christendom that Rome represents. Nevertheless, Augustine cannot be overly optimistic about the future of the Roman state as such—not because it is Rome, but because it is a state; for any society of men other than the City of God is part and parcel of the earthly city, which is doomed to inevitable demise.

Even so, states like Rome can perform the useful purpose of championing the cause of the Church, protecting it from assault and compelling those who have fallen away from fellowship with it to return to the fold. Indeed, it is entirely within the provinces of the state to punish heretics and schismatics.


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  • Wars serve the function of putting mankind on notice, as it were, of the value of consistently righteous living. If one were forced to act righteously contrary to his or her will, is it not the case that he or she would still lack the change of heart that is necessary to produce a repentant attitude—an attitude that results in genuine reformation? Perhaps; but Augustine is unwilling to concede that it is better, in the name of recognizing the agency of others, to let them continue to wallow in evil practices.

    Augustine argues,. The aim towards which a good will compassionately devotes its efforts is to secure that a bad will be rightly directed. For who does not know that a man is not condemned on any other ground than because his bad will deserved it, and that no man is saved who has not a good will? Exactly how God is to bring about his good purposes through the process of war may not be clear to man in any particular case. Moreover, those of good will shall administer discipline to those erring by moving them toward repentance and reformation.

    The 16th to the 18th century

    All of this leads conveniently to a second point: War can bring the need to discipline by chastening. Those of good will do not manifest cruelty in the proper administration of punishment but, rather, in the withholding of punishment.

    THE POLITICAL ASPECTS OF S. AUGUSTINE'S 'CITY OF GOD'

    For Augustine, it is always better to restrain an evil man from the commission of evil acts than it is to permit his continued perpetration of those acts. Writing after the time when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, Augustine holds that there is no prohibition against a Christian serving the state as a soldier in its army.

    Neither is there any prohibition against taking the lives of the enemies of the state, so long as he does it in his public capacity as a soldier and not in the private capacity of a murderer.

    Nevertheless, Augustine also urges that soldiers should go to war mournfully and never take delight in the shedding of blood. He becomes quite pessimistic though in his view of human nature and of the ability and desire of humans to maintain themselves orderly, much less rightly. Augustine holds that, given the inextricable mixing of citizens of the two cities, the total avoidance of war or its effects is a practical impossibility for all men, including the righteous. Happily, he holds that the day will come when, coincident with the end of the earthly city, wars will no longer be fought.

    For, says Augustine, citing words from the Psalms to the effect that God will one day bring a cessation of all wars,. For the present, however, man—particularly Christian man—is left with the question of how to live in a world full of war.

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    As the Roman Empire collapses around him, Augustine confronted the question of what justifies warfare for a Christian. On the one hand, the wicked are not particularly concerned about just wars. This is by no means a perfect solution; but then again, this is not a perfect world. If it were, all talk of just wars would be altogether nonsensical. Perfect solutions characterize only the heavenly City of God.

    Its pilgrim citizens sojourning on earth can do no better than try to cope with the present difficulties and imperfections of the earthly life. Thus, for Augustine, the just war is a coping mechanism for use by the righteous who aspire to citizenship in the City of God. In terms of the traditional notion of jus ad bellum justice of war, that is, the circumstances in which wars can be justly fought , war is a coping mechanism for righteous sovereigns who would ensure that their violent international encounters are minimal, a reflection of the Divine Will to the greatest extent possible, and always justified.

    In terms of the traditional notion of jus in bello justice in war, or the moral considerations which ought to constrain the use of violence in war , war is a coping mechanism for righteous combatants who, by divine edict, have no choice but to subject themselves to their political masters and seek to ensure that they execute their war-fighting duty as justly as possible.

    Sometimes that duty might arise in the most trying of circumstances, or under the most wicked of regimes; for. In sum, why would a man like Augustine, whose eye is fixed upon attainment of citizenship in the heavenly city, find it necessary to delineate what counts as a just war in this lost and fallen world? In general terms, the demands of moral life are so thoroughly interwoven with social life that the individual cannot be separated from citizenship in one or the other city. In more specific terms, the just man who walks by faith needs to understand how to cope with the injustices and contradictions of war as much as he needs to understand how to cope with all other aspects of the present world where he is a stranger and pilgrim.

    Augustine takes important cues from both Cicero and Ambrose and synthesizes their traditions into a Christianized world view that still retains strong ties to the pre-Christian philosophic past. He resolves the dilemma of just war and pacifist considerations by denying the dilemma: war is simply a part of the human experience that God Himself has ordained or permitted.