Copyright (c) 1997 First Things 78 (December 1997): 35-42.
One of the most striking differences between constitutional democracies and tyrannies in our time pertains to certain habits of mind. In constitutional democracies, people tend to think in terms of dichotomies—faith and reason, church and state, public and private, executive and legislature. They are spontaneously wary of conceptual unification, and their wariness makes for divided powers and limited pretensions. In tyrannies—particularly when they are ideological and totalitarian—people tend to ignore or repudiate such dichotomies. A particular doctrine, like Marxist "science," is affirmed as a complete and undebatable truth; the state is looked on as a spiritual order alongside which a separate church would be pointless and disruptive; public life is equated with life itself, and private life is seen as either trivial or subversive; the executive power is regarded simply as the government, with the legislature a forum for propaganda rather than deliberation. Such habits of conceptual unification make for the concentrated power and unchecked pretensions that lead to the horrors so common in these regimes.
Saint Augustine is arguably the greatest exemplar and major source of the dichotomous habit of mind, with Locke, Montesquieu, and Burke merely his heirs. And yet, though he is as important in the development of modern democratic civility as any figure in the canon of political philosophy, he is often thought to exemplify religious extremism and intolerance. His thought admittedly is not entirely free of such qualities. Nonetheless, he manifested a stubborn suspicion of unifying concepts and was in this way on the side of moderation and tolerance. Most of Augustine’s critics are unconscious beneficiaries of his habits of mind, even though the orderly societies and limited governments they enjoy do not exhibit Augustine’s explicit ideals. These societies and governments, like Augustine himself, look in a very guarded way at worldly powers and realities.
Augustine thus contributed more than is generally realized to what is best in the modern political world. Ironically, however, he may have contributed also to what is worst. If so, his contribution was unintentional, for it stemmed from his doctrine of election, which is not explicitly either social or political. But in his handling of the doctrine he may inadvertently have helped to stimulate the modern passion for unification.
The Augustinian dichotomies are familiar. Some pertain to the outward world: empire and Church, history and eschatology, the pagan era and the Christian era. Other dichotomies pertain to the mind. These include the subjective, as illustrated by Augustine’s explorations of our consciousness of time, and the objective, as exemplified in his efforts to establish the primary truths of Christian doctrine; they include also faith and reason, a polarity manifest throughout Augustine’s writings.
There are other dichotomies. At the very center of Augustine’s thought are antitheses pertaining to freedom and arising from the fact of sin—for example, freedom and the law, and freedom and grace. And of special note is the dichotomy of universality and particularity, the former inherent in the assumption that God and morality can be known in some part through the rational categories available to all human beings, the latter implied by the central Christian idea that God is not fully comprehensible in terms of general qualities but is a particular God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who became incarnate in Jesus Christ. Above all other dichotomies is the famous antithesis of the City of God and the City of Man.
This is far from an exhaustive enumeration, but what shows forth in all Augustine’s dichotomies is his cast of mind. He habitually refrained from fusing antithetical social institutions, mental faculties, temporal periods, and the like. He tolerated, and even emphasized, polarities and tensions.
The dichotomies reflect a broken universe; they testify to human fallenness. Only because of our radical imperfection must there be a division, for example, between political and ecclesiastical authorities. Only for this reason is there history in all of its temporality, and only because we are fallen does history—ending without having eradicated the alienation and disorder in which it originates—call forth eschatology. The brokenness of the universe is manifest in the brokenness of historiography; the past falls into separate epochs, such as Hellenic and Christian, that we strive in vain to understand through a single narrative. We see our brokenness in other intellectual operations as well, divided as they are between introspection and observation, and between reason and faith. Were it not for our captivity to sin, freedom would simply be equivalent to righteousness, neither in tension with the moral law nor dependent at every moment on divine grace. And were we sinless we would behold, in the beatific vision, the absolute unity of divine particularity and divine universality.
Both poles, it should be noted, are fully legitimate, although not necessarily equal in dignity or logical rank. It is legitimate, for example, to adhere both to faith and reason, although faith outranks reason, so to speak, in the attainment of understanding and the ordering of life. It follows that the dichotomies are not merely stubborn facts. In some way and degree they are norms, and observing these norms is essential both to a balanced understanding of the human world and to the orderly conduct of human life. The dichotomy of church and state, for example, is a maxim of human wisdom recognized recurrently over a period of fifteen centuries or more, and ignoring it exposes societies to elemental disorder. Likewise, to identify the conclusions of faith and reason would throw all discourse into confusion, and to merge the Hellenic and Christian epochs would render history incomprehensible. Ignoring the dichotomies undermines civilized life. The scandal of totalitarianism lies in its unification of the mind and of all human existence. The distinctions and balances that underlie civilized human order are violently erased, and the consequence is unprecedented inhumanity.
Yet observing the dichotomies is not a task for which mere common sense suffices. Even the civilization of the Greeks was seriously flawed by an imperfect grasp of the dichotomies, along with an insufficiently restrained passion for unity. This is dramatically illustrated by the ideal Plato delineated in the Republic—an ideal at once spiritually inspiring and politically dismaying. Perceiving and respecting the dichotomies thus depends on more than the decency that refrains from brutal projects of unification such as those undertaken by Nazis and Communists in our time. It depends on understanding of a kind that is far from universal and, before dichotomous ways of thinking had been established, must have been rare.
It is surely one of the most significant facts concerning Augustine’s mind—significant in relation to the unfolding of Western civilization since his time—that it possessed the necessary powers of discrimination and comprehension. His commitment to Christian revelation did not subvert his respect for Greek philosophy; and his unprecedented ability to probe what Isaiah calls "the secret heart" did not cause him to slight the need for outward authority. His sense of the overpowering spiritual significance of history did not lead him to the deification of history that Marx and his followers later carried out; rather, his vision of history was balanced by a vision of the end of history—a vision presupposing the tragic and inconclusive character of the historical drama. His intense consciousness of freedom did not blind him to the ways in which freedom is nullified by sin, necessarily checked by law, and dependent altogether on grace. And his commitment to the Catholic Church did not render him unaware of the imperfections of the Church or of the necessity that humankind be ruled by two swords, not one alone.
Augustine’s comprehension of the dichotomies is remarkable in view of his impassioned temper. It is not hard to imagine Augustine as an extremist, as one of the "grands simplificateurs" foreseen and feared by Jacob Burckhardt. How can it be explained that this fiery African became a thinker of such uncommon poise and range?
It can be explained rather easily, I think, if we are looking for a theological, not merely psychological or historical, explanation. Augustine’s extremist potentialities were fully realized in his love of the One Being who warrants and commands an extreme commitment. Augustine after his conversion found himself simultaneously under two divine imperatives: to love God absolutely and to have no idols. To love God rightly was to fulfill every passion; to avoid idolatry was to eschew extremism of every kind. For Augustine, then, God was the center that made it possible for him at once to set apart and to affirm the dichotomies. The love of God enabled him to be both an absolutist and a relativist—an absolutist in relation to the only reality that is absolute, a relativist in relation to the multitudinous realities that are finite and corruptible.
The character of Augustine’s mind provides us with a key, I believe, to understanding the modern crisis. In the totalitarian dictatorships, the Augustinian dichotomies have been ruthlessly assaulted. In many other modern situations—among intellectuals in the Western democracies, for instance—they seem to have utterly decayed. Only in the common sense remaining in many ordinary democratic citizens do they remain intact.
Some of the clearest examples of the modern disintegration of the dichotomies concern the inner world. Certain forms of existentialism insist that reality is accessible only through subjectivity; it is a striking sign of the imbalance of modern minds, however, that the era of existentialism is also that of positivism, which insists that reality is accessible only through objectivity. Modernity saw as well the polarization of faith and reason—a polarization dramatically evident at the outset of the modern period in the juxtaposition of the Reformation and the Renaissance. And three hundred years later the inability of the modern intellect to hold reason and faith in balance was dramatized by Hegel and Kierkegaard. Both have been unfairly simplified, but it is true to say that Hegel’s idealism produced probably the most extreme claims ever made by a great philosopher on behalf of reason, while Kierkegaard, partly in reaction to Hegel, made our humanity depend on faith, and faith on defiance of reason.
When we look to the outer world for similar examples of the collapse of the dichotomies, we realize that another word for this collapse is "idolatry." The passion for unification manifests more often than not a search for a finite god. All around us, in place of the defeated dichotomies, we see political idols. No longer is there tension between spiritual authorities and temporal authorities; rather, society is under the simultaneously spiritual and temporal authority of one master race, one inspired leader, one legitimate party. Human beings are not members at once of two more or less discordant societies, one oriented toward eternity, the other toward the earth. All are members of a single society—perhaps a social class destined by history to represent perfectly the interests of all humanity, perhaps a state ostensibly serving the will of a superior race. History is not envisioned as a mysterious and tragic course of development finally engulfed by eternity; it is reduced to a Thousand Year Reich or a mere temporal process, trailing off triumphally into an era of endless earthly satisfactions.
The state has perhaps been the chief idol of modern man. Such entities as race and class are vague and intangible. They need the concrete embodiment that the state provides. Similarly, an idolized leader or party needs the apparatus of power that the state also provides. But the state is never a self-effacing servant of other gods. In its overwhelming power, its omnipresence, and its seeming immortality, it is the most enthralling of all idols.
One of the most decisive contributions to the development of modern liberty occurred in ancient times with the rise of the Church, which relativized the state. With the Church standing alongside, superior in dignity if not in earthly power, the state could not be regarded, as it was in the Periclean Age, as the uniquely suitable sphere for any life that is fully and distinctively human. No longer could it be said that man is merely a "political animal." Human lives and loyalties were divided, no longer subject to the exclusive claims of the state. The most bewitching of all idols was reduced to the status of a servant—a servant of Christian life in the Augustinian and medieval view, a servant of all legitimate private and public concerns in the modern view. If this relativization had not occurred, stable liberty could not have been achieved. But such relativization makes sense only in the context of the dichotomies. This is why the fading of the dichotomies has led to the rise of the absolute state and, in consequence, to the decline of liberty.
It is not difficult to see the cause of this process of disintegration: "the center did not hold." The divine center of Augustine’s universe maintained a twofold sovereignty over human life. One aspect of this sovereignty was the idea of divine providence. God was held to govern the unfolding of human events in every detail. But God’s governance was not coercive, at least not ideally so, and this brings us to the second aspect of divine sovereignty in Augustine. God required that human beings recognize and conform voluntarily to his governance; that is, he called for love—of God above all, and secondarily of God’s human creatures. A righteous human being, a member of the City of God, was one whose whole life was focused, through love, on the universal sovereign who provides assurance that beneath the seeming chaos of history there is a meaningful order.
In the modern world, God’s sovereignty in both of its aspects has largely vanished from human minds. To begin with, the idea that every occurrence in history and every detail in human lives accords with the will of God has—for secular minds—become implausible. With the disappearance from the modern mind of God’s historical sovereignty, the other aspect of his sovereignty—that secured through love for God—also has disappeared. Expressions of charity of the kind poured out in the Confessions are scarcely comprehensible to the twentieth-century secular mind.
If modern doubt about the concept of divine historical sovereignty is not due to our having discovered that the concept is false, to what is it due? This is a question we can reflect on but probably cannot answer. In order to be conscious of Augustine’s state of mind, however, it would be well to note that it is not a deeper experience of evil than Augustine had that arouses our doubts. It is true that our time has seen unique evils, such as the Holocaust. But the evils of Augustine’s time were terrible enough to overthrow any faith in divine providence that depended on empirical impressions. Augustine and his contemporaries witnessed, after all, one of the most stunning tragedies of world history—the sack of Rome by barbarians in a.d. 410. While Augustine was writing his great treatise on divine providence, The City of God, the Roman Empire was visibly crumbling under barbarian assaults. Yet, for Augustine, the idea that history in every detail was ordered by God was overwhelmingly plausible.
Nonetheless, for whatever reasons, modern attitudes toward history are very different from Augustine’s. Modern attitudes were expressed with great succinctness by Sartre when he said, through a character in his novel Nausea, that "anything can happen, anything." The modern mood is one of radical insecurity; nothing is so senseless or catastrophic that we can assume it will not befall us. As God has lost historical sovereignty in modern eyes, He has lost the power to call forth human love. The decisive occurrence in the collapse of the dichotomies may be simply this failure of man’s love for the divine. God’s historical sovereignty became implausible, and it began to seem that indeed "anything might happen," insofar as Jesus’ Great Commandment was no longer obeyed.
The divine center that failed to hold did not, on disappearing, simply leave a void; it was replaced by various earthly objects of limitless love and trust, illustrating Dostoevsky’s dictum that "man must bow down to something." If God is dethroned, we inevitably look for other gods and, on finding them, demolish the dichotomies. Life is wonderfully simplified. If limitless love for God requires articulation, relativization, and balance in one’s relations with finite realities, limitless love for a finite reality, such as a leader or a nation, relieves us of the task of thus complicating our lives. It reduces us to Burckhardt’s "grands simplificateurs."
The collapse of the dichotomies has in various ways fed the modern crisis. Not every twentieth-century horror is explained altogether by it; the destructiveness of modern wars, for example, is due in part simply to advances in technology. Still, many of the forces that trouble our times can be related, directly or indirectly, to the rise of idolatry. Revolutionary leaders such as Lenin and Mao have been able to claim godlike powers of historical reconstruction; wars have been encouraged by the chaos necessarily prevailing among competing idols; liberty, idolized and thus made absolute, is at the source of the moral anarchy evident in the Western nations; religion, no longer able to balance faith and reason, has in many places fallen back, as a desperate expedient, on a blind and angry faith. But one of the most fateful consequences of idolatry comes from granting absolute authority to reason. It consists in the denial of the ontological order—often referred to as "foundations"—that in past times often curbed the excesses of human pride.
Since the ancient Greeks, Western society has placed considerable reliance on reason, which was seen as a light enabling us to understand both the actualities of the universe and the requirements of the moral law. This reliance was as marked in the Middle Ages—in spite of its being "an age of faith"—as in ancient or modern times. But the Western confidence in reason had a corollary that concerns the fundamental nature of life and reality. This corollary declares that the power and significance of reason derive from the fact that there is an ordered reality outside the mind. This reality might be seen from one standpoint as simply the way things are—as the structure summarily described in scientific law. It might be seen from another standpoint, however, as telling us how things ought to be—as the source of "natural law." It could be affirmed both from a religious standpoint, as exemplified by Thomas Aquinas, and also from a secular standpoint, as evident in attitudes typical of the Enlightenment. Given its simultaneously factual and moral implications, it provided comprehensive grounds—"foundations"—for the conduct of human life.
Belief in such foundations has endured so long in Western history and has been so firmly implanted in our minds that for most people it is virtually synonymous with common sense. It has undergirded both the moral life and the scientific investigations of Western peoples. The startling fact, however, is that today this ancient intellectual edifice is, in the eyes of many leading thinkers, and in the eyes of their multitudinous followers in the universities and elsewhere, little more than rubble. To what extent such a state of affairs prevails in the minds not merely of intellectuals but of whole populations is difficult to determine with any precision. The disorder and despair so widely evident in modern society, however, make it obvious that it is not only among intellectuals that the foundations have been shaken. A great many people with no knowledge of postmodernism or deconstruction no doubt feel that the structures supporting life are somehow weaker than they once were.
The collapse of foundations began in what we might call the uprooting of reason. By this I mean simply that reason was necessarily placed on its own when the dichotomies faded. Separated from other sources of insight such as tradition and revelation, reason became autonomous, even sovereign. Although reason had for millennia played a vital role in civilization, it was in its uprooted state given a role beyond its powers. Moreover, following the logic of idolatry, reason itself became an idol.
This story has been made familiar to us by the greatest of the thinkers who took part in it, Friedrich Nietzsche. First there was a rebellion against God. Reason refused any manner of consultation with faith, claiming entirely for itself the prerogative of defining reality. But rebellion did not stop with the overthrow of God. It soon began to seem that the very structures which reason had supposedly been bringing to light were nothing more than forms which reason itself had imposed on the underlying chaos of reality. We can see this happening in the writings of Hume and Kant. Although both men were highly sober and responsible thinkers, they were lifted to prominence by a movement that Camus referred to with horror as "metaphysical rebellion." All foundations were being swept away. Both morality and science were losing their ontological grounds. Enormously impressive efforts were made to stem the tide of destruction, efforts exemplified particularly by Kant’s moral philosophy. The twentieth-century philosophical scene, however, makes it plain that these efforts failed. Truth came to be defined in terms of inspired intuition (Bergson), practical success (Dewey), or personal perspective (Nietzsche).
The most elemental and conspicuous danger arising from this development is the disappearance of objective norms and values. "Everything is permitted," according to the maxim with which Dostoevsky characterized what he feared was the coming age. Such twentieth-century titans as Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao have shown us what it means in politics if everything is permitted. The newspapers’ innumerable stories of corruption and crime depict personal lives lacking in all moral boundaries. Moreover, the limitless liberty this maxim claims is not only moral. It is epistemological as well: anything can be believed. Modern myths of racial purity and superiority illustrate how such liberty can be used. We are speaking, of course, of nihilism—the annihilation of all limits and standards.
A less obvious, if hardly less serious, danger inherent in the crumbling of foundations is the disappearance of the independent self, which comes to be understood as a function of language and society. The independent self of the past had been a reasoning and faithful being, and as such it had foundations on which to stand. Facing threats to its existence or its moral integrity, it could appeal to the ultimate grounds of life as disclosed in reason and revelation. When these grounds vanished, however, reason and faith no longer could uphold life, and the independent self was no longer viable. Thus again and again in present-day social and political writing we are told that individualism is altogether false and that all genuine human life takes place in society—a view that would largely do away with philosophical reflection and religious meditation. Heidegger typifies a wide range of modern thought when he reverses the commonsense notion that human beings speak through language; now it is language that speaks through human beings. It is not surprising that the very concept of solitude has disappeared from present-day social thought. There is nothing to sustain it. An individual who cannot inhabit an ontological structure—alone, if necessary—is compelled to fall back on one or another social structure, since not even the strongest and most creative person is capable of complete autonomy.
The displacement of the self from an ontological to a social structure necessarily results in the tacit idealization of society. Without an encompassing ontological structure, the social structure is beyond criticism. Lacking in grounds for social criticism, it has to be assumed that society provides a trustworthy order of life. However, it is one of the clearest verdicts of common sense (the common sense formed by traditional foundations) that it does not. Even though an individual cannot develop morally apart from society, the purest examples of morality are found among individuals and not among societies. Saints are all particular individuals, and societies as such are never saintly. But the idealization of society is nearly inescapable if there is no ontological framework that one may inhabit. Life must have a framework, and society is one such framework. But if there is no larger framework around society—and thus no way of criticizing and opposing society—we are compelled to assume that society is what it ought to be. We can now begin to understand the paradox pointed to by Tocqueville: although liberty is lauded, everyone conforms closely with reigning social norms.
The contrast with Augustine is dramatic. One of the main axioms of his thought was that there is only one society that is all that it ought to be, the City of God. Every earthly city—even the Church, the earthly city representing the City of God—is highly imperfect. This implies (although Augustine laid little stress on the implication) that an individual is not entirely fulfilled within any earthly society. It implies also (although it took more than a millennium to draw out the implication) that there was a place in life for solitude and need for a private sphere set off from the public sphere. We are touching here on some of the most valuable insights and institutions of modernity. But Augustine provided the basis for them, and losing the Augustinian basis, we are close to losing the insights and the institutions themselves.
My argument to this point can be summarized simply. Christian revelation discloses a merciful God and, at the same time, a fallen and broken world; life in this world requires the articulation and balancing of numerous dichotomies; these dichotomies support the assumptions and the order on which civilization depends; to hold them together in one’s mind, however, and to hold them in balance in society, depends on a divine center; this center has been lost and with it there has necessarily been lost the capacity for sustaining civilized life. Everything depends, in the final analysis, on fidelity to God. This is why Augustine, as the first great God-centered philosopher in the West, played so essential a part in the recovery of the West from the catastrophe of the fall of the Roman Empire. It is also why the modern world, in its inability to preserve the breadth, complexity, and balance of Augustine’s universe, has come so near to experiencing the collapse of Western civilization.
Augustine’s vision, however, also contained seeds of later trouble. I am not concerned here with such well-known defects in Augustine’s thought as his casual acceptance of slavery and his final acquiescence in the use of force to suppress religious dissent. Criticism of Augustine on these grounds seems to me, in itself, worth very little. It smacks of the kind of superficiality inherent in applying standards of "political correctness." The seeds of the real trouble in Augustine relate not directly to political matters but rather to the love of God that underlies the dichotomies.
A useful starting point in identifying this trouble may be found in an incongruity existing in the body of Augustine’s writings. This is the strikingly different mood expressed in the Confessions and, many years later, in the penultimate book of The City of God. The former is ecstatic, the latter grim. The Confessions constitutes a rapturous utterance in praise of God, whereas Book XXI of The City of God is in large part a determined effort to demonstrate that it is not only possible, but indeed will come to pass, that the damned—assumed by Augustine to comprise a large part of the human race—will suffer excruciating physical and mental pain throughout eternity. He attacks every consideration that might somehow lessen our fear of everlasting torment. In the earlier work we see God as a being who incorporates in infinite measure every beauty, grace, and wonder that human beings can imagine or ever know; in the later work we see God as one who in his omnipotence can cause human bodies to burn forever without being consumed and who, in his implacable justice, can be relied on to see that they do.
It is perhaps unnecessary to say that difficult, if not intractable, theological problems are involved in trying to speak of the eternal consequences of human sin. But the issue is simply this: how can God treat evil, and the human beings who are the source of evil, with all requisite severity, yet also with unconditional love? The severity seems inescapable. God, as infinite goodness, must eradicate sin at its roots and deal justly with the perpetrators of sin. But the roots of sin are deep and all of us are stubborn perpetrators of sin; these are propositions inherent in the doctrine of original sin. How, then, can God root up and punish sin while remaining in his essential being fully and uncompromisingly a God of love? It is immediately apparent that Book XXI is not simply a gratuitous indulgence in cruel impulses lodged in Augustine’s heart. Arguably, it is an inevitable inference from the doctrines of original sin and divine justice. Yet the picture of God that we form in reading Book XXI is not of a God who is purely and uncompromisingly love. It is a picture that fills us with dread.
Involved in this issue, and indicative of its absolute centrality, is the possibility of obeying the two commandments that Jesus set before us. The first and greatest of these, of course, was to love God with all of our heart and mind and strength. Can I accord such love to a God who is the source of eternal and nearly unbearable torment, perhaps for me, and almost certainly for some of my friends? The second commandment, as everyone knows, was to love our neighbors as ourselves. Can I do that in view of the realistic supposition that most of my neighbors are destined for Hell and presumably are execrated by God, rather than loved? These questions bear decisively on our relationship with the center that enables us to maintain the dichotomies.
It would be well to realize at the outset that we are unlikely to find any simple solution to the problem before us. The doctrine of universal salvation, for example, would not solve it. If everyone will assuredly be saved, regardless of how they live or what they do, freedom is trivialized. In making choices, nothing of lasting importance is at stake. Thus Augustine could not have affirmed universal salvation without shifting freedom from the core of his concerns. If humans have freedom of choice, and if this power is significant, it must have eternal consequences; there must be a real possibility of damnation. At only a slight risk of hyperbole, it might be said that if freedom is important then human beings have a right to be damned—if they so choose.
Nor can the problem of reconciling divine justice and mercy be solved by holding that only a minority will be damned. The picture Augustine paints in Book XXI is no doubt rendered more unsettling by the assumption that we are witnessing the fate of most of the human race. Still, the question is not primarily one of numbers. An individual, in the Christian scale of values, is of infinite worth. As seen by numerous writers, such as Dostoevsky and Camus, the suffering of only one innocent person places the justifiability of the whole universe in question. Graham Greene noted that one human body can contain all the suffering the world can contain. Thus if the divinely decreed end of all things turned out to be a state of paradise to which all of the human race, with the exception of merely one person, had been admitted, with that one person sentenced to spend eternity under torture, could we then feel, without reservations of any sort, that God is love?
T he objection may be raised that it was not the suffering of someone of any sort that writers such as Dostoevsky and Camus found so unacceptable, but the suffering of someone who is innocent. I have left out guilt and justice (the objection might maintain) and it is precisely these that rendered Hell unproblematic in Augustine’s thought. The sufferings of the damned were fully deserved. Hence Augustine assured his readers that the saints in paradise, even though no longer afflicted with memories of the evils they themselves had undergone, would be fully cognizant of the agonies undergone in Hell. As a spectacle of divine justice, this presumably would make their own bliss sweeter. It is because justice has seemed a decisive consideration that the suffering of children—assumed to be innocent—has often been the prime example cited by writers questioning the goodness, the power, or the very existence of God.
The issue before us, it must be remembered, is not whether there is innocent suffering. (On the premise of original sin, it is arguable that there is not.) The issue rather is whether there is any way in which everlasting suffering, or Hell, under the sovereignty of a God who is love, can be made acceptable to human understanding and conscience as these operate within the limits of earthly life. It is doubtful that there is. At least, the principle of justice does not show that there is. To begin with, the spectacle of suffering does not become delightful to us once we are satisfied that it is deserved. The thought that justice is being done would not make the odor of burning flesh or the sound of human screams a suitable component of paradise. There is sense—whether or not there is ultimate truth—in Nikolay Berdyayev’s observation that if Hell is eternal, then evil will have won a kind of victory in spite of divine love.
In the second place, given the omnipotence of divine grace, why doesn’t a God who is love save everyone? For Augustine, all are infinitely guilty, according to the doctrine of original sin, in that all in their innermost being repudiate God. All, then, deserve to be damned. But divine grace turns some back to the love of God, thus making them members of the eternal city. Why only some and not all? Objections to the doctrine of universal salvation, already cited, do not seem quite conclusive. For one thing, those objections were only to universal salvation being counted on in advance, not to its actually coming about. For another, it seems unfair for only some, and not all, to receive the immeasurably great favor of having their sins forgiven.
The only solution to the problem of upholding the sovereignty of divine love in the face of human evil, I suggest, is not a solution at all if we think of a solution as a verbal formula of some kind. The solution lies rather in acknowledging that, undiscerning as we are in our finitude and pride, we are unable to comprehend the ways of the infinite and eternal God. We cannot understand how the harsh work of destroying sin can be accomplished by one whose love for those who create sin is absolute. In short, the solution lies in recognizing the mystery of divine grace.
The nature of this mystery may be somewhat clarified by noting how enigmatic human freedom is in relation not only to grace but to the causal necessity we experience every day. As our judicial processes show, we must sometimes look at humans as entirely responsible for their own acts; but we must also sometimes admit the force of mechanical causality—which we refer to in these cases as "extenuating circumstances." But such compromises are makeshift and practical. We have no theories that make everything clear. We cannot, as Kant showed, construct an objective explanation of the relationship of freedom and causality. The incomprehensibility of grace in its relations with freedom presents a like enigma. If humans are dependent on grace for breaking free of sin, how can they legitimately be held personally responsible for their misdeeds? But if they are not thus dependent—if they are personally responsible—how can the Christian doctrines of original sin and divine omnipotence be true? The answer to these questions is hidden in the mystery of divine being and of divine creation and redemption.
Kant remarked that he placed limits on reason in order to make room for faith. That is what we do when we acknowledge the mystery of grace. We make room for the faith that God, although by the deepest necessity of his nature entirely intolerant of evil, is love. Does the God who is love finally and irrevocably destine some people, perhaps even most people, to eternal suffering? We cannot certainly know. But Christians at least think that they know, through Christ, that God is love. On that basis they can know that if God engages in the work of eternal damnation then somehow that work must be dominated and directed by the work of salvation. The eschaton must be an absolutely luminous and undefiled manifestation of divine love.
Now Augustine shows in some of his major works that he was fully cognizant of the mystery of God’s being and sovereign power. An example is the way in which, in The Trinity, he is at pains after working out the analogy between the structure of the human psyche and the divine Trinity to say that the analogy is remote and God’s nature beyond our comprehension. Again, in The City of God, although his aim is that of showing that history is altogether meaningful in spite of the fall of Rome, he does not, in the manner of Hegel and Marx, try to display the overall pattern of history; he is content to leave almost all past events enshrouded in the mystery of divine providence.
In the eschatological vision he delineated in Book XXI, however, and the picture of human destiny he bequeathed to later ages, the mystery has grown very dim. There seems little room for divine mercies so multitudinous and powerful that even the work of damnation will be turned into a work of love. Indeed, Augustine seems to come near the doctrine of what is often called "double predestination"—that God not only saves some through a decree of divine election but condemns others through a decree of divine rejection. Most human beings can do nothing to save themselves from eternal torment, and God—justly, albeit not mercifully—will do nothing to save them.
One result of such a view is that the very possibility of universal salvation is precluded. The first letter of Timothy asserts of "God our savior" that "he desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth." And that must be so if God is love. As already noted, if universal salvation is regarded as a certainty rather than merely a possibility, freedom is trivialized. If it is not regarded even as a possibility, however, the quality of Christian charity is significantly affected. God is more readily thought of as an implacable guarantor of justice than as the source of a multitude of tender mercies. And one’s fellow human beings are more readily looked upon with disdain or horror than with love.
Another result of Augustine’s eschatology is an impression of what we might call divine inflexibility. Here Augustine diverged from Paul, even though he presumably did not intend to. In his letter to the Romans, Paul discusses divine election and divine rejection, not as irrevocable decrees but as acts playing a part in a divine strategy of salvation. Divine rejection is not simply a decree of damnation; it is designed to prompt "jealousy" among the rejected, and in this way to call forth a saving change of heart. It is noteworthy that one of Paul’s greatest contemporary followers and interpreters, Karl Barth, has based on Paul a doctrine that at least contains hints of universal salvation. A God who in choosing some and rejecting others is pursuing a strategy motivated by love for all looks rather different from a God who has pronounced an irreversible judgment of damnation on most members of the human race. Yet the God of Book XXI looks much more like the latter than like the former.
It must be remembered that we are not concerned here with Augustine’s inner mind but rather with the general outlook he transmitted to succeeding centuries. That outlook renders God exceedingly fearful. It is of course quite proper to fear God in a certain sense of that word: to be in awe before him and to think little of one’s own righteousness. But to be terrified of God, and to approach death in an agony of fright, is not to evince Christian fear. Bertrand Russell is no doubt an unsafe guide in matters of Christian theology, but he probably conveys accurately an impression in the minds of most literate people, and not wholly unfair to Augustine, when he characterizes Augustine’s views concerning predestination as a "ferocious doctrine." My argument is that this doctrine contributed—not in Augustine’s own mind, but in coming centuries—to the fact that "the center did not hold."
The most obvious way it did this was by turning people away from God. Some people will continue to worship a terrifying God, probably by finding reasons for thinking that they themselves do not belong to the vast mass of the damned. Many people, however, will flee from the presence of such a God. That is, they will deny that God exists. A God who condemns a large part of the human race to eternal torment invites rebellion. In modern times, of course, that rebellion has occurred. And in consequence the dichotomies have suffered devastation.
Manifestly, Augustine’s own love of God was powerful during most of his mature life. Indeed, the main principle of Augustine’s whole vision of life and history was the love of God. This is what decided the fateful issue of one’s membership in the city of God or the city of man. And it underlay the poise that enabled one to participate at once in the Church and in secular society, to live responsibly in history yet in readiness for the end of history, to draw on pagan wisdom while maintaining the supremacy of Christian revelation. It gave one the spiritual power needed for entering the deep recesses of the hidden self while continuing to respect and obey the objective Church, for following reason indefatigably while adhering unquestioningly to Christian faith, and for bearing the burden of freedom—a burden consisting in the knowledge that freedom misused could bring the eternal loss of absolutely everything of value. The love of God, in short, made it possible to sustain the dichotomies. The strength of Augustine’s love of God is manifest in the strength of the dichotomies in his life and thought.
Nonetheless, in Augustine presumably, as in every human being, the love of God was not an entirely uncontested motive. Augustine may have been always of a divided mind, entertaining impressions of divine wrath and justice that rested uneasily in company with his primary affirmation of divine beauty and mercy. Or he may have changed in some degree; one of his most sympathetic interpreters, John Burnaby, remarks in his Amor Dei that "nearly all that Augustine wrote after his seventieth year is the work of a man whose energy has burnt itself out, whose love has grown cold." One or the other hypothesis seems to be needed to account for Book XXI—destined for as wide an audience as anything else Augustine ever wrote, apart from the Confessions. In any case, it appears that Augustine himself may have inadvertantly weakened the center that he so much loved and that was so vital to the social and political vision which he embodied in his writings and taught to a civilization.
Hatred simplifies; it seeks a reduction of the human race to friends and enemies. Love, however, bears complexities. This is why it sustains the dichotomies and, in turn, sustains civilization. But love has only one adequate object, and that is God. Deprived of that object, it devotes itself to lesser objects, but in doing this turns into fanaticism. Perhaps the heart of the modern crisis is that love has lost its object. Thus the dichotomies fade and civilization totters. The one question I have raised about Augustine is whether, with his ideas on predestination, he unintentionally created a tributary flowing into the stream of thought that eventually led to this crisis. Answering that question, however, is far less important than recovering the dichotomous habit of mind, of which Augustine is probably the major creator and the greatest representative.
Glenn Tinder is Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts at Boston and author of The Political Meaning of Christianity.