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The Very Goodness of Politics
Against those who consider politics a consequence of the Fall, Chad Pecknold argues that politics is inscribed in our nature—as well as in our passions.
The following remarks were prepared for a panel on “The Creation of Politics” at the annual Fall Conference of the de Nicola Center for Ethics & Culture at the University of Notre Dame.
Scholars from Robert Markus to Paul Weithman to Larry Siedentop have argued that Augustine is not an opponent of modernism, but the very inventor of the individual, the creator of the idea of a liberal secular society. More ubiquitous still is the very modern interpretation that Augustine believes that politics is a consequence of the Fall, and thus we cannot find in him any constructive view of politics. As a reader of Augustine who finds him in greater harmony with the classical and medieval world than the modern, I have found these disturbingly presentist arguments as ubiquitous as they are hard to believe.
Augustine is not a personalist, nor does he invent the idea of the individual, nor does he invent “the secular society” which is liberal, democratic and indifferent about religion, nor does he believe that politics is a consequence of the Fall, nor is he the patron saint of limited government. He shares with modern personalists a high view of the human person as the image of God, but sees the person near the top of a created scale of goodness, as God’s vice-regent, as one who mirrors divine governance within the created order. The soul is thus naturally political, made to rule on earth as God rules in heaven, made to rule in concord with God—which is to say that God created the person to communicate his goodness, and to raise up his image to share in this work of governing creation.
In the first half of my remarks, I’ll just state a few fundamentals about his view of the soul as rational, as social and political, and as religious by nature—and I’ll highlight the fundamental goodness of this nature, notwithstanding the discord which evil and sin introduces as a “privation” of this goodness. And then in the second part, I’ll discuss how this cashes out in his constructive view of politics as a natural good reflecting divine governance, how the wounds of sin damage politics, and whether we have need of a remedy not only for the soul but also for the city.
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1. The Very Goodness of Human Nature
It is very clear in both his early and late works that Augustine affirms the fundamental goodness of human nature. His famous idea of evil as a “privatio Boni” is the first-order principle here. The goodness of creation is the baseline—“there is no such entity in nature as ‘evil’; ‘evil’ is merely a name for the ‘privation of the good’” (De civitate Dei (hereafter DCD) bk. 11, chap. 23). Evil is nothing other than a removal or a privation of some created good in the order of reality. Even the devil, Augustine says, is good by nature, wicked by the mystery of his own defiance. Similarly Augustine’s view of human sin is that it is a lust—libido—a “disordered” or “inordinate” desire or passion. And yet, as he writes in bk. 11, chap. 23, “the fact that sin has happened does not mean the whole universe is full of sin.” This means that human nature is fundamentally good, or to use a Thomistic phrase entirely compatible with Augustine, the damage of sin leaves intact the goodness of the principles of our nature. The disorder of evil and sin always presupposes goodness.
Sin is a misuse of the will, and every misuse of the will twists the soul’s intellectual desire for goodness. This weakening of the will introduces discord and disharmony between the intellect and will, misdirecting the passions. But it does not frustrate entirely the mind’s restless desire to see God, any more than it makes politics “a consequence of the Fall.”
So when Augustine reflects on our nature as social and political creatures, he naturally thinks that the human person is made for that goodness which is to be shared in common. Like the personalists, Augustine believes that the human person the pinnacle of creation, created as “one,” but unlike the personalists he believes that human beings are actually made for “kinship,” made “for the unity of human society,” for the familial community, the political community, and by a supernatural cause, for the communion of the beatific vision in the heavenly City (DCD bk. 12, chap. 22). Augustine is an intellectualist, but he is not an individualist. He believes the human person is social and political all the way down and all the way up. Why? In part because the very first thing God does with Adam is to remove his rib (DCD bk. 12, chap. 24) which is to say to create him for society with Eve in order to beget children, and create many families of families, and thus political community itself. At the end of book 12, Augustine thus sees the creation of the person in concurrence with the creation of society and political community—and also the beginning of the two cities, since we see that we are social and political by nature but “quarrelsome by perversion” (DCD 12.28).
As images of God, we are made as vice-regents, co-governors of creation—both under the vitiated powers of our nature, and in the state of graced nature, we are mirrors of divine governance. The whole “mirror of princes” tradition could be regarded as nothing other than a long Catholic commentarial tradition on just this point—how sovereigns may rule in the image of God’s governance.
Put differently, Aristotle’s understanding that we are political by nature fits perfectly with Augustine’s and this is why Aquinas has no problem reconciling the two. But the wound of sin certainly affects politics, as it does the soul. I’ll say more about this, but for now it’s enough to say that Augustine believes the human person is made to rule, and be ruled, by wisdom, in the very image of God who is Wisdom Itself.
A central question for Augustine is: what unites us to our own personal good and the common good, all the way up the metaphysical scale of God’s goodness? What can heal the discord? Here we must acknowledge with Augustine that we are religious by nature—“our hearts are restless until they rest in God.” We cannot help but to be religious, and religion is an interior and exterior justice which binds the soul to God and neighbor. The person is inherently rational, social and political as well, but it’s the religious nature of the soul which does the work of binding us to the good. Yet since original sin destroyed the gift of the original right order, of the original harmony of all things in relation to God, our religious desire is restless for an end which it cannot clearly see. This is why Augustine spends so much time in the first ten books of the City of God on Roman religion failing to hit the target of the one true God.
It is thus Augustine’s constant refrain that Jesus Christ is the one perfect Mediator, the one true sacrifice, which can unite us to God and one another, and this sacrifice is offered daily in the Catholic Church, which is the City of God on pilgrimage in time, the only remedy for sin, the only true religion, the only safeguard for soul and city alike.
Now with this basic anthropology in place, it should be clear that Augustine regards politics as fundamentally good, rational, social, and religious—yet also wounded by sin, where sin is itself spoken of in political terms as “the city of man,” or “the city of the flesh,” which is to say the city of the “bad will,” the city of disordered passions, or to use the Platonic term, the feverish city. He contrasts this city with the eternal governance for which the human person was made, the City of God.
2. The Very Goodness of Politics and the Libido Dominandi
Augustine is constantly utilizing Platonists of various stripes to make his case to the Romans. This is as true of his discussion of Platonic assent to the One, as it is of his discussion of Rome’s own political disorder, which he names from the very beginning of De civitate Dei contra paganos as the libido dominandi—which is to say the lust, the disordered passions which distort and disrupt political order. Original sin wounds us in multiple ways, and while it leaves the principles of our nature intact in their goodness, it wreaks havoc on human passions because of a weakening of the human inclination to what is right and just. The libido dominandi concerns Augustine at great length because it names the disordering passion evident in human social and political communities which he regards as good by nature. His analysis of Roman political disorder is thus always evidence for him of the very goodness of right order.
Augustine has two basic sources for his thinking about the libido dominandi: namely, Greek philosophy and Genesis. Interestingly, they both turn on the passions, and how the city directs or misdirects them.
Plato reviews the disorders or fevers which can afflict each of the good political forms of monarchy, aristocracy and polity—resulting in the fevers of tyranny, oligarchy and democracy. Plato says in the democratic city, that is the feverish polity, all desires come to be seen as equal, and so the democratic soul can no longer recognize what is truly disturbing the balance of their regime, because they can no longer discern between bad and good desires. In this sense, the libido dominandi is actually a feedback loop between the disordered passions of the soul and city, ensuring the mutual destruction of each. The soul is not insulated from the city’s lust, and the city is not insulated from the disordered passions of the demos. Plato notes that any bad dream will tell us that “there is in everyone a terrible, untamed and lawless class of desires” as we find in democratic man. Every kind of political disorder that Plato discusses corresponds to a certain kind of lust or passion which goes berserk, and leads to another round of disordered desires.
Particular disordered passions accumulate in Plato’s account. Interestingly, in light of Augustine’s teaching about evil as privatio boni, they each are described as a movement from order to disorder, or a movement of some prior good, to something which sickens the order. The self-discipline of thrift in oligarchic man leads to greed and the lust of the power of wealth, and then more decadent desires buzz around and cause democratic man to surge to an enormous size, and losing all restraint becomes filled with “foreign madness,” which in turn is how tyrannical man comes into being. The lust for the power of wealth gave way for the lust for liberty, gave way to the rule of the lust for power itself, which is to say Lust itself. As Socrates says, “Lust dwells as an internal tyrant, directing the entire course of their soul” (576d). Tyrannical man is finally the perfect slave of Lust, and all of his opinions will be nothing other than the “bodyguards” of Lust. The word that Augustine reads in his Latin edition is libido, and it’s not sexual but political, or rather anti-political—a pseudo-kingdom, or what Augustine will name a city secundum hominem, according to the lusts of the flesh (DCD bk. 14, chap. 4).
Augustine’s two cities are thus philosophically reducible to order and disorder in the passions. Augustine does not teach, pace some Protestant and Catholic readers, that politics itself is the city of disordered passions, but rather that politics, like passion itself, can be ruled by a heavenly concord, or by an infernal movement away from eternal truth—and that it is only true religion, set up as a habit in the soul, and in the laws and customs of a city, which make possible not a utopian politics, but one which more closely mirrors the eternal governance of things.
Augustine is not a personalist, but a realist about our primal orientation to the common good. He affirms a metaphysical hierarchy of goods that reaches upwards from the primacy of God as uncaused cause, to God as final end, raised high beyond all things. The human person is a “microcosm,” God’s chosen crown of creation. We are made to rule creation in the divine image and likeness, intrinsically ordered to the common good—in the family and the polity, all the way up through the Church, to God. This is right order, and the integrative key to the whole, the cure for disintegration, disharmony, and disordered passions is nothing other than right worship touching every order.
When we regard politics as “a consequence of the Fall,” we forget how we reflect something of the divine governance of all things. Adam and Eve were made for the City of God — the infernal end may be radically individual, but our heavenly end is perfectly social and political. Just as the principles constitutive of our nature remain intact after the Fall, so do we continue to be political creatures made to rule creation with God, imperfectly in this present life, but by the light of heaven. The loss of original justice, and the weakening of our inclination to virtue, wounds every one of us—and this is also what damages our political common good. It is for this reason that not only individuals, but also states must come to recognize the need for a heavenly salve. As Pope Pius XI said in Quas primas, the political disorder we face today is a direct consequence of casting “Jesus Christ and his holy law” not only out of our lives, but out of our politics too.
So, as we are cracking up at the brutal end of liberal order, it is unsurprising that we find ourselves tyrannized by all manner of Lust—libido—sexual, economic and political. But this is not inevitable. Our political disorder is evidence of the right order from which it prescinds. Just as our wounded souls can be healed and elevated in this life, so can our political communities recognize that the only way out of the libido dominandi is to reorient our political passions not only to the highest earthly goods, to noble public goods, but also to direct the civic passions towards the heavenly city for which we were made — some of our cities even bear the names of its most illustrious citizens. An ennobling earthly politics is possible, but not without redirecting our political passions to that City which comes from above.