If this symposium (with other articles from John Owens, Jonathan Leeman, Andrew T. Walker, and me) has insight to offer, it is that a premodern approach to public life has unexplored virtues uniquely suited to address the political crises of our moment. But it is not just any premodern approach, as if the ethics of the pagan Greeks or Romans would do just as well. Rather, we would benefit from the unique and particular blend of the Greek and Roman inheritance with the dawn of the Christian age found in the work of Augustine of Hippo.

Augustine & Human Nature

This is an odd claim because Augustine was neither an American nor a liberal. Augustine of Hippo (AD 354 – 430) was a Catholic bishop in a North African province in the waning days of the Roman Empire. Politically, Augustine was more monarchist and (occasionally) theocrat than liberal, and he certainly never advocated democracy. However, Augustine was instrumental in rethinking the foundation of political order because he confronted two major political events: the conversion of Rome to Christianity and the decline and fall of the Roman Empire (he died as the Vandals were at the gates of his city). His underlying principles of human nature, justice, and political realism are of enduring relevance. What can Augustine teach twenty-first-century Americans about how to renew a culture of self-government?

Augustine starts from a very different understanding of human nature. Rather than defining us by our ability to reason, he defines us by our ability to love—because that is what it means to be made in God’s image. “As a body is impelled by its gravity to move in a particular direction, so the psyche or soul is moved by love. ‘By it I am carried wherever I am carried.’”[1] We are defined by the object of our love and devotion. Those who love God are marked by caritas or charity; when we love sinfully, we have cupidity, the libido dominandi—not merely the will to power, but the lust for it.

Put another way, Augustine starts with the biblical view that “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them,” (Gen. 1:27). As part of God’s good creation—indeed, as the pinnacle thereof—humanity is unique and good, the “greatest adornment of things earthly.”[2] For all the naïve optimism of the Enlightenment, Augustine affirms something even more astonishingly positive about humanity: we are, in some sense, like God. And this likeness to God accounts for humanity’s seemingly innate feeling for goodness, justice, beauty, and truth. “If the image of God and the law of God were completely obliterated from man’s soul by sin…men would have no conception of justice, righteousness, or peace,” according to Augustinian scholar Herbert Deane.[3]

Additionally, we are naturally social creatures. Augustine melds the biblical idea that “it is not good for man to be alone” with Aristotle’s concept that “man is a political animal” and stressed the natural sociability of humankind. “The philosophers also consider that the life of the wise man is a social one; and this is a view of which we much more readily approve. For…how could that City [of God] have first arisen and progressed along its way, and how could it achieve its proper end, if the life of the saints were not social?”[4] This is a key difference with the Enlightenment, which downplayed humanity’s social nature in favor of an emphasis on our individuality.

Augustine departs even more sharply from the Enlightenment and complements his view of humanity’s original goodness with a stark, even brutal appraisal of humanity’s sinfulness. When we love anything more than we love God, we sin—and we become enslaved to that love. “A man is necessarily a slave to the things by means of which he seeks to be happy…those who think to escape servitude by not worshipping anything are in fact the slaves of all kinds of worldly things.”[5] Naturally, we all do this. “All men are a mass of sin,” he argues. The human race is “sick and sore…from Adam to the end of the world.”[6] He sees “man as essentially selfish, avaricious, ambitious for power and glory, and lustful.”[7] This naturally leads to selfishness, materialism, and conflict when people struggle to get the basic necessities of life and satisfy their needs—but, contrary to Marx, it does not stop there. “Even if all material desires were satisfied, the lust for power and glory would still remain and would continue to drive men into personal and societal struggles and wars.”[8]

Augustine is drawing on the older, pre-Enlightenment understanding of human nature. The book of Genesis says that “God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5). The prophet Jeremiah laments that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9). The biblical view of man is that he is ignorant and foolish at best, downright bestial and wicked at worst. This view differs decisively from the view of human nature found in unconstrained visions, including progressivism and nationalism, as well as socialism, communism, fascism, and more—all of which are premised on the improvability, even perfectibility, of mankind.

Augustinian Liberalism

Humanity’s god-like dignity, sociability, sin, wickedness, and brokenness have social and political implications. Because of our sin, “it is therefore absolutely impossible to establish on earth a society or state made up of saints or true Christians. Thus, if we wish to understand how social, economic, and political life operate, and how, indeed, they must operate, we have to start with the assumption that we are dealing, for the most part, with fallen, sinful men,” according to Deane.[9] As a result, “every human society from the family to the empire is never free from slights, suspicions, quarrels, and war, and ‘peace’ is not true peace but a doubtful interlude between conflicts.”[10]

True peace and true justice are, in fact, not possible in the earthly City of Man. “True justice, however, does not exist other than in the commonwealth whose Founder and Ruler is Christ.”[11] Such a city has never been found among the cities of men. Augustine goes so far as to reject Scipio’s definition of a “people” as a group united in their understanding of justice under the reductio ad absurdum that Rome, marred by civil wars and injustice, was not a people under Scipio’s definition. True justice cannot be essential to the definition of a commonwealth because if so, there have never been any commonwealths. Instead, Augustine adopts a humbler definition of a people: “an assembled multitude of rational creatures bound together by a common agreement as to the objects of their love.”[12] This is descriptively more accurate and prescriptively more realistic.

This is why Augustinian liberalism is, at heart, a constrained vision of political and society life par excellence. Augustinian liberalism does not pretend we are able to definitively solve social and political problems, eradicate evil, eliminate all poverty, or enable flourishing for every person. It does not try to do most of the things that progressivism or nationalism try to do. It does not burden the state with the responsibility of policing identity, of manifesting the unfolding historical idea of American national promise, or of embodying the heritage and culture of the American nation. Augustinian liberalism expects less of politics.

Augustinian politics is the comparatively humbler task of adjudicating disputes peacefully, allocating power in a roughly fair way, enforcing agreed-upon rules, and upholding the best approximation of justice we can expect in this sinful world. We will never through political action build the Kingdom of Heaven, achieve the perfected American ideal, or revive the fabled organic polity of antiquity. As Deane says, “rebirth and salvation come through Christ and the Church that He established, and not through the activities or instrumentalities of the state.”[13] Augustinian liberalism is not merely anti-utopian. It is anti-utopianism: the ideology of principled opposition to utopian politics. All illiberal movements are utopian because of the boundless faith they invest in some leader or group of leaders.

Resisting the Romance of the Ancient Polis

We strongly need Augustine’s dose of political humility and anti-utopianism, trapped as we are between the progressive left and the nationalist right. One way of understanding both movements is that they stem from Romantic-era nostalgia for the city-states of ancient Greece, an arrangement in which city, state, community, and church were essentially merged. Nationalists yearn for an organic, whole polity in which citizens share a common heritage and a common sense of loyalty; progressives yearn for a state that instills progressive virtue into its model citizens. Augustine recognizes these two goals are impossible because of the realities of sin. “The Christian view that the principal function of the state is the repression and punishment of the wicked is at the opposite pole from the classical, and especially the Greek, conception that the purpose of the state is to promote the good life and to train and educate its citizens so that they become good and virtuous men,” as Deane argues.[14]

Augustine makes the distinction between the two sharp and clear. The Greek (and later, the Enlightenment) belief that the state “was the highest and noblest form of human association, which existed to make possible the good life for its citizens and to form and educate them so that they might become truly human, that is, good and virtuous men who had realized their fullest potentialities” was wrong. Of course, Augustine keeps some of the classical idealism: he simply transfers it from the state to the church—or, more accurately, to the City of God. “In that city alone can men realize the noble aims proclaimed by the philosophers of Greece and Rome—complete and unbroken peace, perfect concord and harmony, true self-realization, and perpetual happiness.”[15] That is the vision and purpose of the City of God and his church, not the City of Man and its government.

To return a moment to Patrick Deneen and his broadside against liberalism, this is where Deneen is exactly wrong. He praises the model of the ancient polis and blames liberalism for training us to lowering our expectations of politics. The ancient polis trained citizens in virtue and depended on their rational self-governance. The modern nation-state, he complains, has abandoned the effort to train us in virtue and instead “politics would be based upon the reliability of ‘the low’ rather than aspiration to ‘the high.’” As a result, the state habituatesus to act on our lowest instincts, rather than challenges us to act on our highest nobility, which he views as a dereliction of political duty.

Deneen is wrong, but in confusing ways. First, he is correct that eighteenth-century liberalism was based on “the reliability of ‘the low.’” But this was one of the triumphs of liberalism, not downfalls, because it was based on a realistic, Augustinian view of human nature. The ancient polis was noble in theory but nearly totalitarian in practice. The ancient polis combined the powers of church, state, and civil society into one authority and recognized no boundaries on its jurisdiction. The Athenian democratic assembly could and did vote to expel, disenfranchise, dispossess, and execute its own citizens—including, most famously, Socrates, the founder of the Western tradition of philosophy—hardly a model we would wish to follow.

Oddly, Deneen expresses concern for the growth of the all-powerful Leviathan in the form of the liberal state, yet seems unconcerned that the ancient polis he admires so much had universal jurisdiction to define and enforce virtue. It was one of the triumphs of classical liberalism to diffuse power, keep church and state separate, and recognize the validity of cross-cutting, plural loyalties. It also allowed non-coercive institutions to define “the good” and citizens to pursue differing versions without punishment. This is anathema in a polis defined by the pursuit of perfect justice, but the Augustinian polity bears no such burden. The ideal of the ancient polis, understood as a community of like-minded citizens striving to embody the good in their communal life together, is best taken as a model for the church, not the state.

But Deneen also mistakenly believes that the eighteenth-century liberal model is still how the state operates today. In fact, the modern state—more progressive than liberal—is far closer to what Deneen prefers than he acknowledges. The state has, in the service of progressive causes, worked hard to inculcate progressive virtue in its citizens for the better part of the past century. That is why progressive activists have worked so hard, and so successfully, to take over and reengineer public education into an arm of progressive morality. The progressive polis today—the interlocking networks of the state, the media, and the schools—collectively bears a frightening resemblance to the self-appointed moral authoritarians of the ancient polis. To the extent that Deneen’s vision of a new polis is coming to pass, it is responsible for many of the ills he rightly condemns but mistakenly lays at the feet of liberalism. True liberalism—not its progressive usurper—understands the necessity of separating the pursuit of the good from secular political life.

This also helps us understand how Augustinian liberalism differs from progressivism. Progressivism expects far too much of the state and its citizens. It treats the state as an instrument of endless moral reform and demands that citizens participate in a religion of progress and self-improvement to achieve its eschatological vision of the American promise. Augustine again recognizes the impossibility—the danger and the fanaticism, even—inherent in such a project. The Augustinian state “does not seek to make men truly good or virtuous. Rather, it is interested in their outward actions.”[16] Government “does not change, and does not attempt to change, the basic desires and attitudes of the men whose conduct it seeks to regulate.”[17] These lowered ambitions make sense because the rulers are themselves sinners and cannot be trusted to rule in the name of virtue. The state with lower ambitions “does not require good and just men as its legislators, judges, jailers, or executioners.”[18]

The Case for Democracy

Augustinian politics has so far led us to distrust power, disbelieve in utopianism, and limit government’s jurisdiction. This isn’t liberalism yet, although it lays crucial groundwork. To get to liberal politics, consider the alternative: the case for dictatorship. Apologies for autocracy always argue that strong government is needed to ward off chaos. Human nature is too wicked and too untrustworthy, so freedom would inevitably degenerate into anarchy. The obvious flaw in this argument is that it assumes all humans except the autocrat are wicked and untrustworthy. If the flaws in human nature are universal, then empowering a sinful person with unchecked power is the worst possible idea. Democracy, by contrast, “arms the individual with political and constitutional power to resist the inordinate ambition of rulers, and to check the tendency of the community to achieve order at the price of liberty,” according to Reinhold Niebuhr, a twentieth-century theologian in the Augustinian mold.[19]

In other words, human stupidity and wickedness is the strongest argument against every form of authoritarianism—including progressivism and nationalism. Authoritarians routinely argue that people are too dumb and untrustworthy to rule themselves; the democrat replies that the autocrat is also a person and is not exempt from the general rule of stupidity and wickedness. If humans are too dumb to govern themselves, as authoritarians believe, what makes the authoritarians think they are qualified to govern anyone else? (Augustine himself never makes this argument, but his political theology is recognizable in the foundations.)

Ultimately, every argument against democracy comes down to an assertion that some people should rule over other people. No matter how you dress that argument up, it is complete and utter nonsense. It is a mystery, then, why so many contemporary Americans seem to believe the progressive technocrat, the unelected bureaucrat, or the nationalist figurehead is any less stupid or evil than the rest of us. Augustinian liberalism doesn’t require saintly politicians; it expects sinners and limits their power accordingly. “Augustine agrees that the earthly city is ‘marked’ or ‘stained’ by sin. But this sin should usher into a rueful recognition of limits, not a will to dominion that requires others for one to conquer,” as Jean Bethke Elshtain argues.[20]

There is one more argument for liberalism on Augustinian (or Niebuhrian) grounds, one that tends to be overshadowed by the stress on sinfulness. The problem with autocracy, Niebuhr believes, is that its view of government is entirely negative. In fact, government “also has a more positive function. It must guide, direct, deflect, and rechannel conflicting and competing forces in a community in the interest of a higher order.” Liberty is essential to that goal. No autocracy can anticipate, plan, invent, or create all the things that every individual might if given the chance. Autocracy shuts the door on human potential. Democracy (and capitalism) opens it up. “The indeterminate creativity of history validates the idea of a free or democratic society, which refuses to place premature checks upon human vitalities.” Thus, a Christian appreciation for human sinfulness helps us guard against unchecked power in government, but a Christian appreciation for human potential and human dignity should also lead us to value human freedom. As Niebuhr famously puts it, “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”[21]

Augustinian Federalism

I’d like to conclude with a final implication of Augustinian liberalism. Augustine seems to prefer small polities, or believes that the smaller the state, the closer it can approach to true justice and peace, even as he recognizes the benefits of the Pax Romana. He laments the discord and violence brought by Rome’s greatness, even while acknowledging the blessings of a universal rule and even the justice of some of Rome’s past wars. “Why must an empire be unquiet in order to be great?” he asks. He paints an alternate picture of a small body of “moderate stature” with fewer ills.[22] “The man of moderate means is self-sufficient on his small and circumscribed estate.”[23] Augustine is deeply concerned with the effect of imperial greatness on the character of the people; he believes that the burdens and cares of imperial rule weigh them down and, worse, imperial power and glory are corrupting temptations. “Is it wise or prudent to wish to glory in the breadth and magnitude of an empire when you cannot show that the men whose empire it is are happy?” Such problems are not present in the small city. “If men were always peaceful and just, human affairs would be happier and all kingdoms would be small, rejoicing in concord with their neighbors. There would be as many kingdoms among the nations of the world as there are now houses of a city.”[24]

Augustine seems to appreciate the benefits of some form of expansive, if minimal, rule to keep the general peace, coupled with a preference for local rule in every case possible. Today, we call this subsidiarity—or, more simply, federalism. A federal system is one in which there are multiple layers of government which share sovereignty by dividing the activities over which they claim jurisdiction, and in which the lowest or most local level of government capable of governing on a given issue retains jurisdiction over it. In this respect, Deneen—for whom localism is the ideal touchstone—is right. He is wrong to think it is inconsistent with liberalism. In fact, localism likely flourishes best in conditions of general peace and prosperity assured by a larger national government, itself nested within a liberal international order that allows each nation space, sovereignty, and freedom to pursue prosperity and arrange its common life.

The novelty of this idea is that the larger government voluntarily agrees to relinquish its authority over a range of activities to smaller governments that can govern more closely to the people, while the smaller governments benefit from the general order and peace provided by the larger. This enables more accountable governance with greater input from the people most closely affected by a government’s choices. It also allows for greater diversity by empowering different states to make different choices.

Why federalism? Because any government can and will seek to expand its power and its jurisdiction to the ultimate detriment of ordered liberty and human flourishing. Governments have rarely respected the limits they are supposed to abide by unless they are forced to. Federalism is a system for forcing governments to stay in their lane. The arrangement works because we can count on each of the several governments that exist in a federal system to jealously guard its own prerogatives. The states will keep the national government in check, and the national government in turn keeps the states in check. When there is a balance of power, both are enabled to govern in their own sphere and the citizen is protected from the abuse of either. This was the vision of America’s Founding Fathers, and it has been almost systematically dismantled by a century of progressive governance.

Federalism starts from a fundamentally realistic presupposition about human beings, our society, and our governments. This is where the Augustinian heritage is most evident. People are selfish and prideful. As a result, society is prone to disorder. That means government is necessary—but, simultaneously, government reflects the same selfishness and pridefulness that infects people. We need government, but we dare not trust it. Both progressivism and nationalism betray far too much faith in humanity and in government—faith to usher in the progressive utopia or restore national greatness. The Augustinian liberal has no such expectation of his or her government: we would be content if it simply did its job and left us alone.

[1] Herbert A. Deane, The Political and Social Ideas of St. Augustine (New York: Columbia University Press, 1963), 40.

[2] Augustine, The City of God against the Pagans, ed. R.W. Dyson (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998), XIX.13, 938.

[3] Deane, 96.

[4] Augustine, XIX.5, 923.

[5] Quoted in Deane, 41.

[6] Quoted in Deane, 17-18.

[7] Deane, 59.

[8] Deane, 50.

[9] Deane, 39.

[10] Deane, 62.

[11] Augustine, II.21, 78.

[12] Augustine, XIX.21, 23, and 24, 946ff.

[13] Deane, 8.

[14] Deane, 7.

[15] Deane, 11.

[16] Deane, 117.

[17] Deane, 140.

[18] Deane, 142.

[19] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 47.

[20] Jean B. Elshtain, Augustine and the Limits of Politics (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995), 94.

[21] Niebuhr, 44, 49, xxxii.

[22] Augustine, III.10, 101.

[23] Augustine, IV.3, 144.

[24] Augustine, IV.15, 159.