Tending the Garden of the Real
Early in the extraordinary film Gladiator—two decades old next year—we witness a discussion between Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius and his celebrated general Maximus Decius. Encamped in Germania, on the fringes of the empire, Maximus has just led the Roman army to a great victory, securing the border and ending the war. But the aging emperor casts doubts on whether they really accomplished anything meaningful. Maximus, with nearly half his men slain, refuses to believe that his soldiers fought and died for nothing. “They fought for Rome!” he asserts. When Aurelius asks what, precisely, that is supposed to mean, Maximus waxes near-lyrical: “I have seen much of the rest of the world. It is brutal, and cruel, and dark. Rome is the light!”
It’s a stirring moment, to be certain. But Rome, of course, really wasn’t the light. At its best, it reflected the Light, or bits of it. But that’s a different thing. Maximus can be forgiven the error, as Augustine wouldn’t write his magisterial City of God for another few hundred years.
There, in the opening chapters of Book 19, Augustine presents an overview of the Roman scholar Marcus Varro’s 288 theories of the good life. He then rejects all of them as inadequate. Peter Brown, the great Augustine biographer, called this moment “the end of classical thought.” Augustine, contrary to much of the received wisdom of Greco-Roman philosophy that had come before him, is rejecting the idea that the political community can serve as the location in which human beings can be perfected in virtue. Augustine, scholar Gilbert Meilaender suggests, is thereby draining the notion of a “high moral purpose from our understanding of politics.” No political community, Meilaender continues, “can satisfy the restless heart that Augustine evokes in his Confessions.” The political community, for Augustine, is not—it cannot be—ultimate. It cannot, pace Maximus, be redemptive.
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Marc LiVecche is the executive editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy. Through the fall of 2020, he is also the McDonald Visiting Scholar, in residence at the McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics, and Public Life at Christ Church, Oxford.
Photo Credit: Magnolia trees are seen in bloom along the West Wing Colonnade on Tuesday, March 26, 2019, at the White House. White House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian.