The Vision of St. Augustine

Listers, the science of politics is the “noble science,” because it is the highest practical science. Theology- more specifically the Sacred Doctrine of the Catholic Church - is the “Queen of the Sciences.” Understanding her queenly role alongside politics has been the endeavor of many great minds. In the West, political thought can be sketched from Aristotle to St. Augustine to St. Thomas Aquinas. The following list briefly introduces the political thought of St. Augustine and his primary difference with the thought of Aristotle.

The list does use the jargon of political philosophy and theology, but this should not intimidate anyone. As moderns we have lost our moral vocabulary and along with it our political vocabulary. We no longer know how to talk about virtue and the state. We must reclaim not only the political principles of our forefathers, but also the proper terms necessary to express them.


Augustinian Thought The Two Cities and the Enchanted Forest 

1. The Two Cities

During the dormancy of Aristotelianism in the Christian West and the collapse of the Roman Empire, St. Augustine took up the mantle of political thought in his City of God. The work “dialectically examines the great claimants that vie for the loyalty of men’s souls” - the City of God and a City of Man.[1] The former is characterized by those “whose love is rightly ordered to God,” while the latter can be articulated in those who have a “love of self rather than a love of God.”[2]

Engagement Over Escapism Though the City of God and the City of Man stand in opposition to one another, St. Augustine is not suggesting a type of escapism for City of God citizens. In fact, those that most properly take up the mantle of being a Catholic citizen must engage their political communities and bring charity into the very order of society. The engagement of a Catholic citizen is treated in greater detail below.

2. The Transpolitical

In exploring the proper ends of the two cities, St. Augustine elucidates prior Christian intimations in solidifying the concept of the transpolitical disposition of the City of God. What then, is the transpolitical? The Incarnation of the second Person of the Trinity, the Word, Jesus Christ, allowed St. Augustine to move beyond the ancient Greeks and use Divine Revelation to predicate an end in man that transcends the polis – the City of Man – and rests in God, i.e., poetically, the City of God. Christians, according to St. Augustine, are marked with a  “dual citizenship,” which is seen most clearly in Christ’s command “to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”[3]

What does Transpolitical mean? The term transpolitical is a vitally important term when striving to understand Catholicism’s relationship to the state. Old Testament Judaism and Islam are both political religions - there is no distinction between religious and civil law. The religion and the state are combined. Other smaller religions and cults can be seen as apolitical, simply meaning the religion retracts itself from all political involvement. Catholicism is neither. The Church and the State have their unique roles. The highest virtue of the State  is justice, because politics has as its end the correct ordering of society so that men may live well. The Church’s highest virtue is the mother of all virtues, Charity and the Church has as her end man’s eternal end with God. Church and State must work together for the good of man, but they cannot be merged nor can they be isolated.

What is a polis? The term polis is another academic - but useful - vocabulary term that describes a political body marked by self-sufficiency. It literally means city; however, since it comes from writers such as Aristotle where city-states were independent political bodies, the term has taken on a symbolic notion of any independent and self-sufficient political body. Today, we may see polis as a stand in for nations.

3. All regimes fall short due to sin

In instructing Christian citizens, St. Augustine handles many of the same thematic tributaries of political philosophy as Aristotle. Regarding the polis and justice, Augustinian thought avers “perfect justice” is unattainable by the governance of man, so the polis must “achieve the more limited and modest goal of establishing some recognizable form of temporal peace.”[4] The incapacity for the polis to achieve perfect justice is predicated upon the revealed notion of original sin. While Plato and Aristotle sought the best regime, St. Augustine sees that “the palpable effects of original sin ensure that every regime will necessarily be imperfect.”[5]

4. Eternity is call to engage, not isolate

Augustinian thought is primarily concerned with the eternal end of man and not the earthly end. However, his thought advocates a distinction [between the eternal and earthly end], not a departure. The Christian is called to bring charity and the light of Christ into the polis. The order of charity “extends from those in one’s immediate family up through and including fellow members of one’s political community.”[6]

5. Aristotle & Augustine

There is then a certain mirroring: for as Aristotelian thought places the household as the sub-political introduction for the virtue of justice, so does Augustinian thought posit the household as the sub-political introduction for the virtue of charity. Accordingly, Augustinian thought states, “one must not remove himself from civil society,” because it would “violate an aspect of Christ’s injunction to love one’s neighbors.”[7] Hence Aristotle places man within the polis by his nature and St. Augustine places man within the polis due to his divine mandate to love.

The Sub-political In describing the polis, Aristotle breaks it down into several parts. He says that the first and most intimate “sub-political” part of the polis is the family and the order therein. It is a familial order forged by the relationship between husband and wife and their children. Next those families gather together in groups known as villages and then finally coalesce into a city-state or polis. While the terms may change - neighborhood, city, state and nation - the principle is that the polis is a whole with several parts that come together for the good of man. For both Aristotle and St. Augustine, the family is a key part for the introduction of virtue into society.

6. The Enchanted Forest

It is in this distinction [Aristotle with nature and Augustine with charity] that while St. Augustine may be seen to address several of the same tributaries of political philosophy, he never seems to adequately address a headwater issue, i.e., nature. The Catholic political thinker Fr. Ernest L. Fortin remarks that Augustine “most lacked” a “fully developed notion of nature.”[8] Whereas Aristotle would see both the polis and the forest existing by nature, St. Augustine does not seem to be able to make such a claim. Furthermore, Fr. Fortin notes “Augustine’s medieval disciples” saw nature as an “elaborate system of symbols, an enchanted forest,” in which nature “functions as a reminder of an invisible reality far more beautiful than anything the eye has ever seen before.”[9] Commenting upon Fr. Fortin’s observation, Dr. Marc Guerra observes, “it is hard to see man as a political animal by nature, or the city as the community par excellence by nature, if one lacks such a concept.”[10] Thus in the Christian West, political philosophy under St. Augustine integrates the concept of the transpolitical, yet still suffers the privation of an adequate treatment of nature.

Man as Political Animals As Catholics we advocate natural law, but the only reason we see natural law as the basis of human society is because man is by nature a political animal and he naturally gathers together in social and political communities. These political communities of man should be governed by nature, i.e., the natural virtues (prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude). St. Augustine never adequately treats nature; thus, there is a way the City of God and City of Man interact, but they are at heart at odds with one another. It is not until the resurrection of Aristotle in the West that the Church moves into a holistic view of nature and the divine regarding politics. The acute mind that leads the Church into this complicated but fecund discussion is the Common Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas.

[1] Marc Guerra. Christians as Political Animals., 7.

[2] Ibid., 8.

[3] Ibid., 122.

[4] Ibid., 8.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 123.

[8] Ernest L. Fortin. The Birth of Philosophic Christianity: Studies in Early Christian & Medieval Thought. Ed. J. Brian Benestad. (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Pub. Inc., 1996), 15.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Guerra, 124.