chapter  4
18 Pages

Augustine of Hippo, the pilgrim ethic and relational politics


Religious teachings, I argue, have much to offer to the discourses of international political theory. I have elsewhere argued in favor of a Christian ethic, drawing on the morality of natural law, as a means of enriching both cosmopolitan and communitarian discourses, drawing in particular on the teachings of Thomas Aquinas. (Beattie 2010 and forthcoming) In this chapter I remain focused on the ends of Christian Social Teaching and their contributory value to international political theory but focus instead on the writings of St Augustine of Hippo, arguing that his interpretation of the social world offers valuable insights to the discourses and practices of international politics. While the introduction outlines one particular engagement with Augustine’s political thought, as interpreted by Reinhold Niebuhr, the larger structure of this chapter draws on Duncan Bell’s (2009) characterization of the Realist tradition as “an approach to the world” in order to first challenge the traditional depiction and subsequent usages of St Augustine’s ideas in the discourses of international relations theory. Drawing on Bell’s depiction of Realism is valuable for two reasons. First, it provides an overview of the Realist tradition more generally, something that space limitations do not allow in this particular chapter. Second, it allows for the inclusion of seemingly alternative discursive themes within a Realist interpretation of world politics. With this in mind, this chapter unfolds in a tripartite manner. Part one

delves into what Jean Elshtain (1995) labels “Augustine Lite” and how this depiction has influenced a Christian Realist response. Part two of this chapter moves beyond these traditionally accepted claims in order to illustrate the wide variety of themes that can be found in the writings of Augustine. It pays particular attention to the themes of friendship, goodness and felicity, all situated under the sub-heading of “an ontology of peace,” in order to show how a nuanced reading of The City of God against the Pagans challenges not only Realist depictions of the political but also engages fruitfully with the wider normative discourses of international politics. The final section of this chapter concludes with the following caution and ensuing argument: namely, that to adopt solely a negative or positive interpretation of Augustine’s works is to misconstrue the wider messages he offers to his readers. With this in

mind, sections one and two are interwoven with and situated within the pre-existing literature of tragedy and international politics to locate the specific influence of Augustine vis-à-vis international politics. It illustrates how he can guide discussions of moral agency, drawing on the idea of a pilgrim ethic. The article concludes by way of illustrative examples, drawing on the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) as a means of challenging the primacy of international sovereignty and arguing instead on behalf of an institutional design premised on the ends of charity. First and foremost, it must be acknowledged that, save for a few specific

occurrences, religion, understood both as a practice and as a teaching, does not have a central role in the mainstream discourses of international politics. Why is this so? In engaging with this question, the works of Scott W. Thomas (2005) are of particular importance. Thomas offers a robust examination of this particular relationship, articulating four different reasons as to why religion has been sidelined. He notes, among other things, the propensity for religious practice and its assumptions to fuel and sustain violent conflict throughout the world. Consequently, in a bid to eradicate violent conflict, religion was set outside the mainstream structures of the political. From an historical perspective, the marginalization of religion, he claims, results from a desire for an epistemologically derived rational account of human nature. An international perspective would engage with the Westphalian account of world order, debatable in and of itself, which situates religion within the state, under the control of a legitimate governing authority who in turn can sustain peaceful and harmonious political relations. Absent a legitimate governing authority within international politics, religion, consistent with the claim relating to Thomas’s first point, will only fuel the flames of violent conflict. Finally, from a disciplinary perspective, he notes the onset of the behavioralist revolution within the American discipline of political science and the ensuing positive structures that shaped research agendas within political science departments, denying a role for faith and metaphysics. While acknowledging such structures, both formal and informal, which

marginalize formal engagements with religious teachings, it is necessary to note the anomalies that emerge. Writing during the inter-war years and into the Cold War era, Reinhold Niebuhr (2001, 1974, and 1950) presents scholars with one particular interpretation of Christian Realism, drawing on the ideas of Augustine of Hippo. He assumes that men, while existing in a fallen state, are not naturally sinners. They are, largely speaking, moral beings. That being said, such individual morality is complicated by the social state of their existence. In other words, while individual man is able to reason and develop a conscience facilitating the potential for moral agency, such an ethos is unable to develop in the larger community. This in turn engenders conflict and an inability to cultivate a sense of the common good. To wit, ethical Realism prevails within the moral deliberations and ensuing actions of groups challenging the individual ethical structures that govern individual daily lives. This, in turn, Niebuhr claims, can explain the onset of conflict in and amongst groups

within the political, both domestically and internationally, demonstrating the malignant side of human nature. (For Niebuhr’s influence on Christian Realism see Lovin 2008 and 1995; Tjalve 2008; Coll 1985.) It is this tendency towards conflict that for better or worse has retrospectively situated Niebuhr within the Realist interpretation of world politics. (Lavere 1980) At its most basic level Realism, according to scholars of IR, begins with an assumption of negative human nature sustaining a desire for survival hinging on a healthy cultivation of self-interest. This interpretation of human nature is in turn transposed onto states, which are assumed to be the primary actors of international politics. Highlighting the self-interested desire for survival, Realists interpret foreign policy decisions without any deference to morality or ethicality, owing to the inability of groups to think morally and conscientiously. This, along with an anarchical international environment (that is, the absence of any legitimate governing authority), sustains a ‘self help’ system within which states will act singularly, assuming the worst of their counterpart actors. There is little hope for trust, cooperation, and mutually achievable ends in light of these assumptions. (Donnelly 2000; Baylis and Smith 2001; Boucher 1998; Viotti and Kauppi 2010) This re-articulation of the Realist approach, it must be admitted, is a basic

and vague interpretation. It fails to take into account the vast array of scholars who offer highly nuanced interpretations of the approach itself. (Williams 2007; Brown, Lynn-Jones and Miller 1995; Haslam 2002; Molloy 2006; Murray 1997) For example, it does not give due deference to the ethical struggles represented in the writings of Hans Morgenthau, a noted father of international politics and a Realist scholar as well. For Morgenthau (1973; 1950; 1948 and 1946), as for Niebuhr, man is an ethical being, which, much like in Niebuhr, proves problematic when individuals begin to act in concert. Morgenthau argues on behalf of an ethical statecraft removed from individual moral decisions, making his wider writings portray a conflict in those who seek to be moral yet continuously fail in this desire in the wider social arena that constitutes their life. Likewise, this interpretation fails to take into account the more recent incarnation of the Realist tradition that invokes a notion of tragedy in order to grapple with the seemingly continuous moral failings of states, despite their best efforts to quell the threat and consequences of violent conflict. (Frost 2003; Brown 2007; Rengger 2005; Lebow 2005; Mayall 2003; Euben 2007) But to re-hash all of Realism’s various reincarnations would deny the possibility of achieving my own small aims vis-à-vis Augustine and Realism. By turning to one such author in particular, Duncan Bell, we can quickly acknowledge the debt of my own quick appraisal of this topic while simultaneously developing the structure of this particular chapter. Bell’s edited volume Political Thought and International Relations (2009)

not only details the historical development of Realism but also provides three different modes of engaging with Realism in a contemporary sense. Realism, he claims, can reflect a defense of the status quo: namely, the priority of power, stability and order as the primary pursuit of international politics.

Second, Realism can reflect an international conservatism whereby the idea of change within the political is both undesirable and a source of great danger in light of the ends of self-preservation. This interpretation he likens to a liberalism of fear, a discourse associated with political philosophy more generally. Finally, he notes that Realism can be understood as “an attitude towards the world.” In this final sense Realism remains engaged with the pervasiveness of power politics while remaining skeptical about the possibility of reason within world politics. Yet, at the same time it focuses on “exposing self-interest, hypocrisy and folly” within politics, domestic and international alike. It is this final sense of Realism that this chapter flirts with, drawing, inter alia, on the sense of hope and dismay articulated in the writings of Augustine as he reveals his defense of the Church institution during the final days of the Roman Empire.

This chapter chooses to focus on one single publication of Augustine’s (1998), The City of God against the Pagans. In so doing it must be acknowledged that other important texts exist which could prove useful to the arguments being put forward. Yet, as Elshtain (1995) notes, the writings of Augustine are prolific and many, which, when they are combined with the secondary literature surrounding his ideas, makes it difficult for any single scholar to do the ideas full justice. Consequently, this chapter begins by way of apology for omissions made while offering a brief glimpse into the manner in which Augustine and his ideas are interpreted in the discourses of international politics, specifically international relations theory. Augustine is clear, at the beginning of The City of God, that he is writing

this text by way of a defense of Christian teachings and institutions. He is aware of the sharp criticism being leveled at the institution in light of the inevitable demise of the Roman Empire and the blame leveled at the Church institution as a contributing factor to this end. The first four books of The City of God are, in fact, a concise rebuttal of this idea, as Augustine tries to show, inter alia, how the ideals of Christian teaching have, instead of contributing to their demise, saved Romans and the Empire untold suffering, as churches have acted as a place of refuge for those who find themselves unable to defend themselves during battles. Furthermore, he challenges the supremacy of the Roman gods, asking the citizens what type of gods would allow plagues, pestilence, and general human suffering to co-exist with temples dedicated to their devotion throughout the experiences of daily hardship. This, he hopes to show, is not the work of a benevolent set of gods. Consequently, it is reasonable to assume that individuals, when properly made to understand the natural felicity that emerges from the true God, can understand first how Rome was never a true commonwealth and that it failed at its core to provide a just and secure environment for its citizens. Such is the overall aim and end of The City of God. When this large (and

overwhelming) text is broken down into its constituent parts, many themes

begin to emerge. Traditionally, for scholars within the discipline of international relations, it is within book 19 that many themes of import are revealed. A focus on this particular chapter will reveal that the themes of love (cupiditas and caritas), justice, commonwealth and leadership are all discussed. For better or worse, as Elshtain (1995) has argued in Augustine and the Limits of Politics (ALP), this focus has provided students and scholars alike with a version of “Augustine Lite,” in which many of the ideas and themes contributing to the wider aims and ends of Augustine’s vision are left by the wayside. This, she claims, is something of which she herself is guilty, and she offers by way of apology to her former students a re-examination of “Augustine Lite” before providing a highly nuanced reading of his works more generally. ALP is an interesting read if only because the tone of the work itself is very

relaxed and introduces the reader to the themes of Augustine in a manner that lacks the overwhelming sense of intimidation that comes from reading his original works. In the second chapter Elshtain describes her original mis-characterization of Augustine, noting four themes of particular import. The first theme is pessimism. Scholars of international politics tend to assume that, contra an enlightened and modern account of politics, political order does not foster progress. It is best, on this account, to assume the worst of individuals and acknowledge the inability to achieve a state of moral agency. Yet, as the ensuing section will reveal, the hopeful pilgrim reflects not the possibility of contemporary progress but rather ultimate felicity in the union of God, which can be understood as one form of self-improvement, albeit not in the traditional earthly sense. Evil, she secondly points out, is a very real phenomenon for Augustine. While limited work has been done on the nature of evil vis-à-vis international politics and Augustine, his account of evil ought to be understood as a privation and not creation, which stands at odds with various ideas of evilness within the political. (Exceptions to this account are evident in Arendt 1996; directly related to IR in Rengger and Jeffery 2005; and finally, Jeffery 2008a and 2008b.) Thirdly, scholars focus on Augustine’s account of power, which is not natural but rather a result of man’s fallen nature. The mistake that is commonly made is to assume that power, as Realists claim, can only be restrained and never escaped, hence the eventuality of conflict. Finally, there is in this interpretation a deference to authority, whose legitimacy is questionable but can be understood as necessary owing to the inability of individuals to love one another and engage in a related affectionate manner (1995: 21). It is, one must acknowledge, a dismal portrayal of the individual and his or her ability to establish a modicum of the political. By focusing on the actual writings of chapter 19 we can begin to understand

how such a vacuous reading of Augustine has fostered this dismal interpretation of being human. Leading up to chapter 19, Augustine presents his readers with two opposing cities-the City of God and the City of Man. Both cities exist within man’s fallen state; that is to say, having committed the original sin of challenging God’s eternal knowledge, man and woman, Adam and Eve, were cast out of the Garden of Eden and faced in lieu of a life of felicity one

of hardship, toil and suffering. Such was the state of being human that individuals, guided by lust, pride, and a desire to dominate others, lived in the City of Man. The consequence of the fall and the ensuing construction of human relations was the political state. As R. W. Dyson (1998) has pointed out, the possibility of a state is the best means of achieving a form of justice among individuals, even if it is, according to Augustine, justice akin to that found within a band of robbers. The state, for Augustine, is not a natural entity and cannot guarantee

the peace Augustine afforded those eventual members of the City of God. At best, it provides order to the disorder that emerges from sin. The state, it should be clear, was not considered an entity capable of developing virtue in its population, as postulated in ancient political philosophy, but rather offered the possibility of security and order, with the outbreak of occasional conflict. This point is further highlighted by Rex Martin (1972), who, in his investigation of state and commonwealth in the writings of Augustine and Cicero, points out that Augustine’s wider work seeks an example of tranquil order that individuals can strive towards, an example, he argues, which is found in The City of God. Like Dyson (1998), Martin reveals that Augustine’s account of politics distinguishes itself from ancient and classical political philosophy, arguing not for an ideal account of goodness achieved through an account of being political, but rather an account of quotidian human life that articulates an “anti-politics,” asking individuals to commit to the vision of the next world and using this vision to order the temporal world. What then was the example provided by Augustine’s City of God? This

counterpoint vision begins with an articulation of the will, caritas and the characterization of the moral agent as a pilgrim on earth. Only an individual’s will can determine which loving path it will follow, that of cupiditaslustful domination-or that of caritas-loving friendship ultimately of God, but also of family and friends, both near and far. It is constituted by individuals whose willing ends are aligned with the ideals of Christian charity, unlike their counterpart citizens in the City of Man, guided by a lust to dominate, or cupiditas. The City of God is a faithful vision of how individuals, who will accordingly, can achieve a graceful state of being after life in the City of Man. Citizens of this city are not immune to the pitfalls of sin and pride but, owing to the benevolence of God, are provided with a modicum of grace to overcome its negative consequences. What ought to be made clear, however, is that the City of God transcends both time and space and does not reflect a significant relationship with the Church institution itself. Moreover, citizens of the Eternal City co-exist on earth within the City of Man. It is not for the earthly individual to determine who is a member of which city. This is the task attributed to the ends of eternity and its associated judgment. Of extreme importance, however, is the balancing of the two cities themselves. By providing a counterpoint to the City of Man, the City of God is capable of elucidating a vision of the future, which can escape the state of eternal bondage. To wit, while it does not allow for a significant account of progress within the City of Man itself, it

does offer a message of salvation which, when properly channeled, allows the pilgrim the means of reasoning away from the ends of evil and seeking out the ends of felicity, always associated with God himself. The idea of “Augustine Lite” comes about as a means of highlighting how

easy it is to focus solely on the descriptive content of the City of Man to the detriment of the City of God. Indeed, by so doing, it is possible to subscribe to the politics of fear outlined in Bell’s descriptive categorization of political Realism more generally. That is to say, absent the ability to achieve a state of true justice, citizens and their leaders will accept a modicum of order, in the short term, to guarantee their well-being, even if, from time to time, conflict may emerge. Predictable conflict, on this account, is better then the threat of full-blown anarchy. Absent the balance of The City of God it is easy to comprehend how Realist scholars attribute to Augustine a negative or even hopeless account of being political. This balancing act, however, is of utmost importance if we are to move beyond this general interpretation of Augustine and provide an alternative interpretation of the political, demonstrating, along the way, the significance of Augustine vis-à-vis the wider theories and practices of international politics. Turning once again to the writings of Jean Elshtain, among other authors, we can begin to develop alternative themes found within Augustine, contributing to an alternative rendition of Augustine’s work by drawing on her depiction of an “ontology of peace.”