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21.06.08 Dougherty (ed.), Augustine’s Political Thought

The Medieval Review

21.06.08 Dougherty (ed.), Augustine’s Political Thought


This edited collection of eleven essays, as its title makes clear, deals with the vast range of Augustine's political thought often in relation to prior or later thinkers. Divided into two sections, the first covers "Politics, Nature, and Virtue," and the second "St. Augustine and Ancient Political Philosophy." Richard Dougherty's introduction informs the reader that the inspiration for the collection was the scholarly work of Father Ernest Fortin, noted Augustine scholar. As a consequence, and following Fortin's lead, the essayists address "the writings of St. Augustine as part of an extended conversation with ancient, medieval, and modern writers" (1).

The essays in part 1 include Dougherty's "St. Augustine and the Problem of Political Ethics in The City of God." With an expansive bibliography, it uses Augustine's discussion of suicide to show how he goes beyond the Roman and Greek views, although he does not reject them. Rather, he expands from them precisely because he understood how the Christian dispensation would place limits on the values of the political domain. The second essay in the section, Michael P. Foley's "The Other Happy Life: The Political Dimensions to St. Augustine's Cassiciacum Dialogues," draws attention to the overlooked political aspects of these dialogues. In chapter 3, Peter Bush jumps a few hundred years to discuss Augustine and Giles of Rome's On Ecclesiastical Power, a defense of papal supremacy against Dante's Monarchia, a work condemned by the papacy because it attempted to limit papal power. The bibliography unfortunately lacks substance. Chapter 4, Ashleen Menchaca-Bagnulo's "Deeds and Words: Latreia, Justice, and Mercy in Augustine's Political Thought," focuses on Book 10 of The City of God, taking its lead from Pierre Manent's idea that Augustine was passionately committed to this world in anticipation of the next. She argues for the role of worship, latreia, as a key to understanding Augustine's view of worthy pagans and Christians. Taking up a topic that has not received adequate attention, Adam Thomas' "The Investigation of Justice in Augustine's Confessions," concludes the first section of the collection. The discourse on justice, which occurs when Augustine ruminates on his youthful tryst (for nine years) with Manicheanism, moves to Augustine's notion of "true, inner justice" (107), a premise that distinguishes between human notions of justice and God's justice.

The second section takes up Augustine's dialogue with ancient philosophy. Thus, chapter 6, Thomas P. Harmon's "The Few, the Many, and the Universal Way of Salvation," examines how Augustine engages with the legacy of Platonic political thought, particularly in Porphyry. Douglas Kries, in the following essay, "Echoes and Adaptations in Augustine's Confessions of Plato's Teaching on Art and Politics in the Republic," starts with the caveat that there is no definitive evidence that Augustine knew the Platonic dialogues. Nonetheless, he persuasively shows how Augustine responds to Plato's critique of art. In Augustine, Virgil and Terence substitute for Homer in Plato; but Augustine, like Plato and Cicero, he argues, can see a way to reform art, with Book 9 of Confessions' "Vision of Ostia," read against Book 1. Ryan K. Balot's "Truth, Lies, Deception, Esotericism: The Case of St. Augustine," the next essay, is a brilliant analysis of how these topics play out in Augustine's thought and their implications for a political Augustine. The essay is particularly pertinent in light of contemporary assaults on the truth, especially those promoted by modern French philosophy. He concludes that for Augustine, "truthfulness and honesty are necessary to good societies and good human lives; second, that a new regime of truth was possible because of the rise of Christianity; and, third, that the most important truths can be understood clearly by ordinary people" (194-195). Further, Augustine condemned esotericism with vehemence. Chapter Nine, Veronica Roberts Ogle's "Augustine's Ciceronian Response to the Ciceronian Patriot," takes as its starting point Augustine's role as rhetor, particularly in The City of God. In asking who Augustine is addressing, she sidesteps the many positions adopted by a host of Augustine scholars on his politics. Her argument, that Augustine is addressing the "virtuous Roman patriot" (201) allows her to analyze his response to Cicero in a more incisive manner. Outlining Cicero's political thought and how it helped define a Roman patriot, the essay moves to Augustine's views. She concludes "Cicero sought to form citizens who were dedicated to their public duties, enamored of justice, and concerned for the common good" (216). Augustine, Ogle concludes, follows this lead but seeks also to liberate the Roman patriot from "political idolatry" by providing "an effective and fulfilling reason to serve the common good" (216). The penultimate chapter, Daniel Strand, in "Augustine's The City of God and Roman Sacral Politics," addresses the connection between Roman religion and Roman politics to show that this pernicious link "feeds into Rome's captivity and deception" (224). This Augustine attacks in the first ten books of The City of God. In the last chapter, Daniel E. Burns looks at the contribution of Joseph Ratzinger to the question of "Augustine and Platonic Political Philosophy," making the point that Ratzinger's "greatest merit" was pointing the way "to an extensive study of Augustine's 'intimations' of his real disagreements with Platonic political thought" (260). Burns suggests that Ratzinger's tentative steps could chart a path forward to more studies, and this book seems an attempt in that direction.

Augustine's political thought is neither simple nor dated. It has attracted the attention of many brilliant minds including Ernest Fortin, Robert Dodaro, Michael Foley, John Rist, R.W. Dyson, Mary Kys, Herbert Deane, Reinhold Niebuhr, R.A. Markus, Joseph Ratzinger, Peter Brown, John Milbank, Jean Bethke Elsshtain, among others, with whom many of the authors in the collection are in dialogue. Unfortunately, the book lacks a bibliography, so this is hard to confirm, but I was struck by the overwhelming reliance on Anglo-American Augustine scholarship, with the exception of Joseph Ratzinger, because in fact, French, Italian, and German scholars have engaged with the topic. In any collected volume, there will be stronger and weaker essays, and this book is no exception. Nonetheless, in the early decades of the twenty-first century, sixteen hundred years after his death, the collection demonstrates persuasively that Augustine still has something very profound to say to us about politics.