Copyright (c) 1999 First Things 93 (May 1999): 71-73.
Living in Two Cities: Augustinian Trajectories in Political Thought. By Eugene TeSelle. University of Scranton Press. 227 pp. $19.95.
Augustine is a thinker for all seasons and all times in the portrait that emerges from Eugene TeSelle’s Living in Two Cities. TeSelle is intimately familiar with the historical environment that Augustine inhabited and with great sensitivity examines ancient understandings of the city in order to illuminate Augustine’s master concept of the two cities. More important to TeSelle than showing Augustine’s relations with the ideas and realities of his own time, however, is the aim of uncovering his relations with our own time. Hence his subtitle: he wants to bring to light Augustine’s relevance for later ages, particularly the age we are living through today.
Two Augustinian themes, as developed by TeSelle, will prove illuminating for most readers. One is that of man as a sojourner. The idea of course is commonplace in Christian literature, but TeSelle puts it to notably good use in discussing Augustine. He explores carefully the differences, in the eyes of antiquity, between a sojourner and an alien. To simplify drastically, a sojourner is more at home than an alien, yet not fully and finally so. The sojourner is a traveler, the alien an utter stranger. The distinction is useful, for it serves to characterize Augustine’s sense of the human condition without exaggerating his pessimism. We do not really belong in even the best of earthly cities, yet not everything on earth is strange to us. We are not fitted for fulfillment through earthly citizenship, and thus are not political animals, in Aristotle’s sense of the term. But nowhere in God’s universe are we simply aliens.
The other theme worthy of note is that of peace. TeSelle sees the three main standards of collective existence, in Augustine, as love, justice, and peace. The latter is of far more interest to TeSelle than the former two, and this, I think, is because the Augustine of love and justice, while perhaps sublime, can seem distant and severe, whereas the Augustine of peace fits more easily into our own eclectic and undemanding times. Peace, to speak more summarily than TeSelle allows himself to speak, is a state of affairs that is far from ideal yet serves an essential earthly purpose, that of allowing members of the two cities to share a common life. Moreover, the standard of peace implicitly recognizes the range and diversity of values. Peace was important to Augustine not only because it was necessary in order that Christians might carry on Christian worship. It was important also because it allowed for the pursuit of various finite goods—goods other than God, yet still good "in all their finitude and transiency, and indeed in all their ambiguity." The ideal of peace has a humane breadth. In his desire for peace, Augustine is for almost anyone today a sympathetic and understandable thinker.
The pages devoted to these themes are probing and subtle, and based on deep learning. TeSelle is careful to obscure nothing through hasty judgments, and no one, however thoroughly versed in Augustinian literature, is likely to read these pages without profit. Serious dangers, however, are inherent in TeSelle’s approach, and these must be discussed with some care in order to take a proper measure of Living in Two Cities.
One of these dangers is that of insufficient definition. If a great deal of attention is given to the "trajectories" of a political philosophy, the outlines of the political philosophy itself may come to be blurred. The Augustine who emerges from Living In Two Cities, it must be said, is rather shadowy. Ways in which various ideas of Augustine’s bear on present conditions and concerns are so carefully examined that the question of precisely what Augustine himself believed tends to be forgotten. This difficulty is aggravated by the author’s conviction that the trajectories of Augustine’s thought are often antithetical to one another. Thus, in a typical discussion, TeSelle notes that "one can regard human nature . . . as conflictual but argue that human society is consensual," as did Hobbes, or, in the manner of Rousseau and Marx, one can see human nature as consensual but society as conflictual. TeSelle concludes, as he very frequently does in dealing with such issues, that "Augustine shares something of both perspectives."
The conclusion is no doubt valid in some cases. Still, in facing major theoretical problems, Augustine must have occupied some rather definite positions, for otherwise his thought would never have attained coherence and he would not deserve to be studied by later generations. The aim of political thinking, it may be said, is the kind of self–definition achieved in assuming certain political positions. Thinking that reaches no clear positions has therefore failed. Many readers will wish that TeSelle, with all of his learning, had provided a somewhat more sharply focused picture of Augustine’s political identity, that is, of the positions beneath the trajectories.
The other danger inherent in studying the trajectories, rather than the essential characteristics, of a political thinker is that the thinker will be unintentionally assimilated into later types of thought. Thus, as we try to discern Augustine’s relevance to our century of political totalitarianism and moral confusion, he may gradually be given the shape of a twentieth–century thinker rather than the shape that was really his—that of a very late classical thinker witnessing the death–throes of the Roman Empire. In the process, we risk obscuring or even gravely distorting Augustine’s real identity. This danger was not wholly avoided by Jean Bethke Elshtain in her recent Augustine and the Limits of Politics, nor is it wholly avoided by TeSelle. In reading either book, one comes to imagine a thinker who fits more readily into the present–day world, with its unique preconceptions and problems, than does the real Augustine. The truth is that for anyone who accepts with equanimity the reigning political principles of our time, Augustine is a somewhat forbidding figure. It may be worth noting why this is so.
Augustine did not care greatly about liberty in the modern sense of the term, although he cared very much indeed about governmental respect for the proper sphere of the Church. Augustine was only uneasily and occasionally tolerant, and his settled position (against the Donatists, late in his life, as well as earlier against the pagans) was one of active intolerance. He was not a proponent of popular rule. He had no clear and comprehensive concept of the good society or of the best system of government even though he affirms various social and political norms. He probably would have found it incomprehensible to treat cultural diversity as an ideal, rather than merely as a difficulty to be dealt with as reasonably and humanely as possible. The chasm between the modern political mind and Augustine’s can be felt acutely when one notes that, for Augustine, the kind of government one lives under is in the final analysis a matter of indifference.
To put the point more sharply with a current cliché, Augustine was, in his politics, flagrantly incorrect. This becomes particularly evident in his lack of concern with social reform. Indeed, the very idea of social reform was probably unknown to him, as it was to his time in general. Not that he was callous or uninformed with respect to conditions suffered by the poor. As a bishop he was quite familiar with such conditions and was used to devising measures for their amelioration in individual cases. But the idea of systematically and steadily improving society so that no one would suffer from hardships occasioned by the social order probably never occurred to him; and even if it had, one can doubt that the idea would have struck him as cogent or appealing.
I must hasten to say that TeSelle in no way contradicts these assertions. He even emphasizes, albeit briefly, the absence in Augustine’s thought of any theory of reform. Nonetheless, he finds one of the trajectories of Augustine’s thought to be that of "world transformation," and, while this may be historically accurate, in that certain ideas of Augustine’s were so used, he does not ask whether such use can be truly in the spirit of Augustine—which, to say the least, is doubtful. And at another point he writes that "we would expect an Augustinian politics, under optimal circumstances, to seek change, perhaps fundamental change, but without overvaluing its achievements." But would such a politics be authentically Augustinian? Only by stretching considerably the boundaries of Augustinianism.
The result of focusing on possibilities of this sort is to leave in the shadows the fundamentally eschatological character of Augustine’s outlook. Although Augustine is often thought of as having inaugurated the Western philosophy of history, the only historical events that concerned him ultimately were those making up the history of salvation. TeSelle, in spite of his fine comments on sojourning, allows the reader to forget that what impelled Augustine to envision man as a sojourner was his radically eschatological orientation.
Closely related to these matters is TeSelle’s stress on Augustine’s appreciation of finite values in all their variety. He writes that "there is a dynamic in human willing prior to and deeper than the decision for one love or the other, one city or the other, namely the human capacity for love of what seems good and the human desire for participation in it." Leaving aside the question of whether anything, for Augustine, is deeper in man than love for God, one may concede that Augustine was keenly attuned to the various pleasures and graces of ordinary human existence. But to say this without taking into account Augustine’s intense and sustained fear of being sidetracked by finite goods in his pursuit of the one infinite good (illustrated by the uneasiness caused him on account of his sensuous enjoyment of hymns) is to intimate an inaccurate image of the great thinker and saint. TeSelle’s suggestion that Augustine’s God can be "inclusive," so that all true values are prized through and in God, is interesting; and it is true that for Augustine every real value was reflective of the Creator. It is at least arguable, however, that in his relations with sinful humanity on earth, Augustine’s God was exclusive. Earthly man was too unstable and corrupt a creature to be granted the heavenly luxury of divine inclusiveness.
To use a term made familiar to us by Isaiah Berlin, Augustine was a hedgehog. He knew "one big thing." Most people in the modern liberal democratic nations seem to be foxes, knowing only many little things. This is one way of marking the distance between Augustine and modern times. For us, ideas like liberty and democracy are unproblematic because variety is unproblematic, and we are spontaneously tolerant because we are not sure that anything is so untrue or unrighteous as to be intolerable. Eschatology, concentrating as it does on the one big thing that comes with the end of history, is a strange and impossible attitude.
In emphasizing how different our world is from Augustine’s, I do not mean to say that we have, in any normative sense, left Augustine behind. Perhaps the greatest evil involved in unduly assimilating Augustine into the modern era is that we thus deprive ourselves of a critical perspective on our historical situation. One need not reflect long on the moral and cultural indiscipline excused by modern liberty, or the varieties of irresponsibility occasioned by the enthronement of popular taste and opinion, or the moral relativism inferred from the standard of tolerance, or the unsought and unhappy circumstances sometimes wrought by self–confident reformers, to realize that the Augustinian perspective might be very useful to us.
TeSelle’s sensitivity and care as an Augustinian scholar are exemplary, and his exploration of the relations between Augustine’s thought and the political issues before us today is deeply thoughtful. But I fear that in concentrating on the trajectories, rather than the intrinsic features, of Augustine’s outlook he does something contrary to his original intention: he obscures, as much as he clarifies, Augustine’s contemporary relevance. He lets us think of Augustine as someone easily approachable, a natural ally and friend of modern man, and leaves in the background the refractory, radically eschatological Augustine our troubled and distracted age needs to hear.
Glenn Tinder is Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts at Boston and author of The Political Meaning of Christianity.