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Augustine and the Limits of Politics.

Glenn Tinder, University of Massachusetts at Boston

Jean Elshtain might appropriately have subtitled her book "An Appreciation." She does not attempt a comprehensive presentation of Augustine's political views, nor does she engage very extensively in critical analysis of those views. Rather, her principal aim seems to have been to show that, even by standards common among late-twentieth-century American liberals, Augustine was a rather attractive and discerning figure. Thus, for example, his attitudes toward women were surprisingly fair and balanced for a man of his time; furthermore, he was not an enthusiastic supporter of the Constantinian settlement, as one might expect the stereotypical Augustine to be; and although he defended the concept of just war, he was acutely conscious of the evils inherent in war; finally, while he was not as tolerant as, say, John Stuart Mill, he was far from unhesitatingly repressive toward heretics such as the Donatists. In some very perceptive passages, Elshtain likens Augustine to one of the most widely studied and influential thinkers of our century, Hannah Arendt. The likeness is in their concepts of evil. Augustine did not see evil as glamorously demonic but rather as absence of good, something which paradoxically is really nothing. Arendt, as everyone knows, envisioned even the extreme evil which produced the Holocaust as merely "banal."

In general, Elshtain wants to show that Augustine was more moderate and more balanced than people today often suppose. This pertains particularly to the "limits of politics." As these words from the title of the book indicate, Elshtain sees Augustine as conscious - as many dominant figures in the twentieth century have not been - that there is much that politics cannot accomplish; he was "a thorn in the side of those who would cure the universe once and for all." Nonetheless, he "similarly torments cynics who disdain any project of human community, or justice, or possibility" (p. 91), for he was not preoccupied with human failure and blind to human goodness.

The result of these emphases is a book that does much to rectify the kind of continuous injustice done Augustine by the modern secular world. People who have only a passing acquaintance with Augustine, and judge him mainly by prevailing attitudes, can learn much from Augustine and the Limits of Politics. One can ask, however, whether Elshtain's Augustine is more like the real Augustine than is the Augustine delineated in secular prejudgments. He probably is. Yet, Elshtain's portrait is of a decidedly gentler figure than - in the mind of this reviewer, at any rate - the fiery African, with his tireless attacks on Manicheans, Donatists, Pelagians, and pagans of all sorts, really was.

To pursue this question it might be noted that Augustine was intensely concerned with the preservation of order, for order was necessary to the life and activity of the church, and it was ceaselessly threatened by human pride and selfishness. As a consequence, there is much in Augustine that foreshadows Hobbes. This is a major theme of Herbert Deane's classic study of Augustine's political doctrine (The Political and Social Ideas of St. Augustine, 1963), to which Elshtain makes no reference. Liberty (except for the church) and even constitutionalism were decidedly secondary considerations for Augustine. He leaned strongly toward the maxim of absolute obedience to the government. And while he was more strongly inclined to be tolerant than is generally realized, in the end he was not a defender of tolerance. Peter Brown, a leading Augustinian scholar of our day, and in general deeply sympathetic with Augustine, remarks that "Augustine may be the first theorist of the Inquisition" (Augustine of Hippo: a Biography, 1967, p. 240). Noteworthy, too, is Augustine's lack of concern with social reform. He was not indifferent to the sufferings of the poor or to the evils of slavery, but amending the drastic inequalities of his time, or abolishing slavery, were not matters for serious consideration.

The decisive factor in this whole matter may be Augustine's view of evil. In likening Augustine's concept of evil to Hannah Arendt's, Elshtain has in mind a doctrine Augustine developed in the course of his break with Manicheism: that evil is only a deficiency of being and in itself has no positive reality. It is therefore parasitic on being, or good, and cannot stand on its own. For Hannah Arendt, it might be said, Eichmann's "banality" was not a positive characteristic so much as a "blankness" (George Kateb's characterization), a characterlessness. But, to begin with, Arendt's hypothesis is more debatable than Elshtain acknowledges. Was Hitler banal? Was Goebbels banal? Arendt's view is surprisingly individualistic, in that it does not take into account the idea (adumbrated by Reinhold Niebuhr, among others) that there are different kinds of evil (for Niebuhr, pride and sensuality), and that these may cooperate in any massive appearance of historical evil. Thus, men like Hitler may empower banal evildoers such as Eichmann. It seems unlikely, however, that the banal evildoers could, all on their own, initiate and carry out such an act as the Nazi revolution. At some point, surely, men who are altogether more demonic must take a hand. Turning to Augustine, it is questionable, despite his doctrine of the negativity of evil, that sin was fundamentally banal. The chief sin in his eyes, after all, was pride, which in its extreme forms we find repellent and frightening but not banal. Elshtain herself, in another context, notes that Augustine was fearful of war because, however just the cause, it was apt to "stir up temptations to ravish and to devour" - not very banal activities. Evil may be a mere negation of reality and not in itself a reality. Nevertheless, Augustine was appalled by the presence in most human beings of an inclination to embrace and to call forth that negation. Hence, in his later life he devoted much attention to the eternal arrangements which God would make for the human sources of negation; that is, he outlined Hell, and he did so in rather lurid colors. Hence, too, the greatest issue of social and political life for Augustine was not constitutionalism, or tolerance, or even justice, but rather peace and order.

Minimizing the scale of evil in Augustine's mind, Elshtain neglects to mention a concept which was central in Augustine's thought, although unwelcome to modern ears, that of divine grace. For Augustine, the human tendency to negate being and the good could not be countered by human effort but only by grace. This meant that every human achievement was dependent on grace and that the entire drama of history (Augustine's philosophy of history being, of course, a distant ancestor of Hegel's and Marx's) was fashioned by grace. These are matters with which Elshtain is obviously thoroughly conversant, yet they form no part of the picture of Augustine she presents.

Given this and other omissions and emphases already mentioned, I do not recommend Augustine and the Limits of Politics as an introduction to Augustine's political thought. I do recommend it, however, to those already possessing a general knowledge of Augustine. It is an intelligent, warm, and well-informed discussion. And all of those who think of Augustine as a cruel and dogmatic old prelate whose time has long ago gone by should hasten to read it. They will discover, as countless generations past have discovered, that Augustine is a thinker for all circumstances and seasons.
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Author:Tinder, Glenn
Publication:American Political Science Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1997
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