R. A. Markus, Saeculum IV — Ordinata Est Res Publica

Having earlier covered chapter one and chapter two  of Robert A. Markus’ book Saeculum, the previous post covered chapter three.

Today we cover chapter four.  

Chapter 4
Ordinata Est Res Publica:
The Foundations of Political Authority

This chapter inquires “into the political implications of [Augustine’s] views on human nature, on the realisation of ultimate human purposes and human perfection in general.” [73] The difficulty with such an inquiry is that Augustine does not give us a treatise on political theory concerning “authority and obedience, about law and social order.” [72] What Augustine has to say about these topics comes out in fragments here or there. (Indeed, Fr. Dodaro‘s volume on Augustine’s political writings contains only letters of correspondence.) This is not unusual in his day. “Of sustained reflection on the social dimensions of human existence there is no trace between Cicero and Augustine.” [73] These fragments must be assembled if one is to see whether Augustine has anything like a political theory.

There is an “apparent conflict” between the classical and Judaeo-Christian traditions concerning political theory. The classical tradition stemmed from “the polis-centered tradition of Greek thought” which saw “the political framework of human life [as] the chief means of achieving human perfection.” [73] In it, politics is creative, the theater upon which “ultimate human purposes” are to be sought; the city-state is here a training ground for virtue. Regardless of the metaphysical differences of the various schools that held to this, “the theme of the polis as the means of directing men towards the achieving of the good life” [74] is a constant. For the Judaeo-Christian tradition, God, and not humanity, creates the one right social order. “In relation to that kingdom [the people of God] were subjects, not agents; in relation to all other, human, kingdoms, they were aliens rather than citizens.” [74] Waiting, this tradition adjusts to living in unjust alien cultures.

“Augustine initially stood closer to the classical conception of political life” [75], though he moved away from it towards the Judaeo-Christian one. Nonetheless, in “the final phase of his thought” he sought “to give more weight to the political order than it could bear in the perspective of a stark, biblical repudiation of ‘creative’ politics.” How could classical participation be reconciled with God’s sole initiative in city-founding?

Political authority and a cosmic order were nearly identified for him at the earliest stage of his thought, when he shared the Plotinian understanding of “an order which pervades the whole universe, at all its levels, from the transcendent One at its summit to the lowest.” [76] Logos (λογος) was one of the Greek words that indicated order, symmetry, proportion, even likeness. Drawing on philosophical resources was as common as it was natural: Eusebius “mobilised Hellenistic ideas of kingship to create an image of the Christian ruler as the reflection and counterpart in the visible world of God’s invisible logos. […] In his own person, the ruler was the point at which human affairs were drawn into the cosmic order.” [77] A “neo-Pythagorean treatise on kingship” from that time sums up the shared idea:

In the parts of the universe, which are many and different in their nature, some one living being has rule over the others in virtue of its innate capacity and its greater share of divinity. In the terrestrial part, where we are ourselves concerned, man is the best endowed by nature, but among men the king is most divine [77]

The order of the universe is divine, and the things in the universe participate in this divinity; the higher levels of order guide and gather the lower levels into that order. For early Augustine, likewise, order is “that which, if we follow it in our lives, will lead us to God.” [78] The social order can, and should, “conform to the divinely established order of the universe.” The ruler’s perfection secures this, which is done by educating him in wisdom, which initiates him into the heart of the divine and unchanging order of things.

Thus, under the guidance of the wise ruler emancipated from the appeal of what is temporary and partial, the social order assists men in advancing towards their goal. This advance is accomplished by reason, within a universe conceived as substantially accessible to human comprehension and capable of being dealt with by the resources of human reason. [78]

Augustine expresses this classical vision biblically, which conceals the tension between the two languages. [79] The emancipation of the wise man by a liberal arts education and the liberation of the people of God from bondage in Egypt were assimilated to one another. [80] Early on in his career, this “disguised for him […] the gulf between the redemption history interpreted as a divine educative process and the ascent from the lower to the higher, the material to the spiritual, the sensible to the intelligible, as conceived in the Greek philosophical tradition.” [80]

This “precarious synthesis” was eventually eclipsed through “his reading of Paul in the mid-390s.” [81] God’s election in saving and damning seems arbitrary, though we must believe it “is the act of some hidden justice, inaccessible to human investigation”, Augustine declares. Political authority still “secur[es] the right order.” But the government’s “business” is not “to concern itself with the soul.” That is not “Caesar’s sphere.” [82] The soul’s ascent is no longer by means of human powers, but through God’s grace, leaving “the idea of a gradual ascent through successive steps” insignificant. “With the disappearance of the ‘ladder of ascent’, society could no longer take its place among the rungs of the ladder.” Augustine  then denied that “human affairs” or “the government of wise men […] perfectly dedicated to God” could provide an order that would lead to God. [83]

“Tension, strife and disorder are endemic in this realm. There can be no resolution, except eschatologically. Human society is irremediably rooted in this tension-ridden and disordered saeculum.” [83] Human life is still essentially social, even for the wise and blessed, but the polis does not secure this blessedness — the mature Augustine saw such an idea as hubris and “the radical vice” [84] of Greek and Roman political philosophy. “Never again did he consider the institutions of society and government as agencies concerned with helping men to achieve the right order in the world. Their task was now to minimise disorder.” Political authority is not natural, but consequent to sin. “If all here [were] subject to distortion and instability, then the ruler’s claim to obedience could no longer be based on his standing as the representative of a higher order into which his subjects are to be drawn through his agency.” [85] The duty to obey rulers is not grounded in their integrative function into the cosmic order, but in God’s dispensation of governmental authority so as to minimize disorder. [86] “Like illness and distress, political authority […] cannot claim to ‘perfect’ [humanity] in any immediately obvious sense.” The hidden order of God’s will is “a very different thing” from the classical cosmic order.

Augustine understood “reason” to be “grafted […] into the universe” [87] with the creation of humankind. “Providence henceforth operates through two channels:” the natural and the rational/voluntary. These two correspond to “two kinds of order”, “the order of nature and the order expressed in human choices”. The order of any human society reflects the latter, and is not a natural order. Augustine’s thought on law changed as a result of this. Unsurprisingly, early on he saw an eternal law at work in the principles in nature, having a natural affinity with the human mind. Valid human law is derived from this eternal law. The “right ordering of human affairs is part of man’s itinerary to God”. [88] Human law is to embody justice, and facilitate ascent on the ladder of perfection. After his turn in the 390s, however, at first the eternal law becomes a negative limit, rather than offering positive guidance, and finally, later, its role is solely “to help in avoiding conflict and to maintain the ‘earthly peace'”, having no power to change “internal dispositions” or “make men good”. [89] “[A]round 398” Augustine had written that

the eternal law is divine reason, or the will of God, which orders the preservation of the natural order and prohibits its transgression [90]

Signaling the break between the eternal law and nature: the eternal law commands nature’s conservation. Eternal law retains its total scope; the natural order enjoys less scope, and so “there are human realities which are not subject to” it. The “arrangements” of “human affairs” and “their historical careers, is no longer part of a cosmic or natural order.” [91] So while there is one subordination “of inferior to superior” [92] that is part of the natural order –corporeal to spiritual, the passions to reason, the less to the more comprehensive, children to parents, etc.– there is another that is not at all necessary, but is a product of the domain of human reason and will — e.g., rulers over the ruled, masters over their slaves. [93] “The hierarchy of nature and the hierarchy of society” are now fully “prised apart.” [94] So a ruler’s

being in a position to control his inferiors is not here founded upon an antecedent ‘superiority’, but is in fact the only thing in which his superiority consists. [This is the] bare superiority of being established in a controlling position [93]

How does this happen? The sphere of other-than-natural social arrangements we inhabit is broken through the libido dominandi, the “passion to dominate, to subjugate others to one’s will”. [93] The “perverse and selfish” libido dominandi creates the earthly city, and “has no place in the hearts of the just who live by faith.” [94] [An odd statement, seemingly at odds with what Markus is about to write. –GDS] Thus, the “just” who find themselves in political power will strive to govern as fathers, though they will fail, “for God alone rules ‘without pride’.” “Inequality among men” [95] is a result of sin, and God “mobili[zes]” it “to keep sin in check. Political authority serves to remedy the conflict, disorder and tensions of society.” The wicked are restrained, and the good enjoy greater freedom from the wicked.

‘Control of the wicked within the bonds of a certain earthly peace’  [De Gen. ad Litt. IX.9.14] remained Augustine’s fundamental thought about the purpose of government. [96]

And yet the state needed to contribute to “securing a space for the development of the amenities and the arts of civilisation”, for coercive power was not enough to hold a society together: the state needed to do more than provide “minimal security” [97] if it were to ” ‘foster[…] a certain coherence of men’s wills’ ” [CoG XIX.17]. People need to agree on their loves. This cohesion through shared values gets little attention because of Augustine’s focus on discord, and his corresponding rhetorical methods.

Augustine’s “downgrading of society by confining it to the sphere of the temporal needs of men in their fallen condition is the counterpart of his secularisation of history”.  The Roman Empire and all governments and human societies exist “in the region where the two cities overlap.” [98] All government and societies come from the libido dominandi, and they are infected with the libido dominandi, the needs of these societies being “met […] [only] at terrible cost.” [99] “The idea of a Christian society [is] a mirage”. [100] The truth of the mixed saeculum is the “perplexed and interwoven life of the two eschatological cities.” [101] In the end the cities are distinct, but not now, so when Augustine writes that the saeculum is where they overlap, we should not think of it as a mediating space: the two societies are not yet distinct in the saeculum. Before the end, the boundaries of these two cities are never “prematurely revealed in visible, identifiable form.” [101]

[H]ere and now the two cities between them are, quite simply, what the saeculum is. It is neither a third thing somewhere between them, nor is it, except eschatologically, resolvable into its two constituents. For the citizen of the heavenly city, concern for the saeculum is the temporal dimension of his concern for the eternal city. [102]

Even with the different ultimate allegiances and loves of the two cities, their proximate loves have sufficient overlap to establish a community here, and a “sense of belonging.” True enjoyment and community can only be found in the society of the blessed in the heavenly city, though — not in “a polis.” [103] Since neither Church nor state are that society, the “realities of the saeculum must be spoken of in historical or political, not in theological, terms.” [104]

5 thoughts on “R. A. Markus, Saeculum IV — Ordinata Est Res Publica

  1. “Never again did he consider the institutions of society and government as agencies concerned with helping men to achieve the right order in the world. Their task was now to minimise disorder.” Political authority is not natural, but consequent to sin. ” Civil government is a necessary evil. It should make the polis safe for the City of God.


    • Ah, but, problematic for your last sentence, the City of God is not the Church, and the City of God is not something clearly separate from the civil government in the _saeculum_. Both cities are jumbled together here.


  2. Pingback: R. A. Markus, Saeculum V — Afer Scribens Afris | Into the Clarities

  3. Pingback: R. A. Markus, Saeculum VI — Coge Intrare | Into the Clarities

  4. Pingback: R. A. Markus, Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St. Augustine | Into the Clarities

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