Three Political Augustinianisms

Augustine’s City of God is probably the most influential text in the history of political theology. With his low expectations for political rule in the saeculum, the age awaiting the Second Coming, Augustine steered the Latin West away from the imperial theology of the Byzantine Court. Protestants have “Aw-gus-STEEN”, who justifies their membership in a decidedly invisible catholic church, and Catholics have “Aw-GUS-tin“, the double processionist who planted the seeds of filioque and the anti-Donatist who tilled the soil of ex opere operato. These lines are quite clearly drawn, but beware of the many “political Augustinianisms” on the market today:

1. The Proto-Secular Augustine (R. A. Markus, Saeculum, 1970). Markus emphasizes the ambiguity between the civitas terrena and the civitas Dei. On Markus’s view, Augustine seems to make a theological argument for relinquishing the political order as an object of theological study.

2. The Anti-Pelagian Augustine (Jean Bethke Elshtain, Augustine and the Limits of Politics, 1995). Augustine is pessimistic about “progress” in the human political order. Unlike Plato and Aristotle, Augustine repudiates architectonic political theory, and cautions us to have chastened, conservative expectations for what human beings will accomplish. This overlaps with the most general “Augustinianism” that I think is described in Jeffrey Stout’s Democracy and Tradition (2004).

3. The Polemical Augustine (John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory, 1990). Augustine hammers the Roman Empire for its libido dominandi, and brooks no quarter with the damned civitas terrena. Augustine’s critique is anchored in an Edenic “ontology of peace”, the Christian destiny he believes lies beyond this world.

Michael Hollerich has a 1999 article in Augustinian Studies, “John Milbank, Augustine, and the Secular” that privileges “Political Augustinianism #3” over “Political Augustinianism #1”. I especially like James Wetzel’s questions about whether “Political Augustinianism #3” can see the “splendidness” of Plato and pagan philosophy. These appear in his 2004 article in the Journal of Religious Ethics.

In addition to these, I think there is a fourth Political Augustinianism rooted in his critique of pagan “cyclical” time, but that has been borne out less by the contemporary literature.


One response to “Three Political Augustinianisms

  1. Surely Charles Mathewes’ Theology of Public Life (2008) deserves a place in this conversation. The most important living scholar of Augustine. Perhaps “The Ascetic Augustine” in your schema.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s