R. A. Markus, Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St. Augustine

As they work their way through the seminal figures of Western history, introductory courses on Philosophy continue to include Augustine of Hippo, sandwiching him between Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, who each lived from seven-to-eight-hundred years from him in either chronological direction. One of the principal difficulties in engaging with Augustine on some of the classical loci of philosophy, however, is that he does not always have works dedicated to these topics. On these matters, one must glean his position from other works. Augustine’s position on political philosophy is one such subject. Thankfully, Robert A. Markus’ Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St. Augustine, Revised Edition (New York: Cambridge, 2007) goes a long way towards filling this vacuum.

Saeculum goes such a long way toward meeting this need that it is impossible to cover, responsibly, Augustine’s position on the nature of human society and political life without recourse to it. Saeculum appears on every short-list bibliography about Augustine’s treatment of political life — assuming that its findings are not engaged with directly in the course of whatever essay or chapter concerns itself with the subject. We, who live in a secular age, would do well to attend to Markus on Augustine’s conception of the saeculum, even if only to hear something almost like an ancestor of our current cultural situation. It might be a slight wishful exaggeration to say that “[Augustine’s] ‘secularization’ of the realm of politics implies a pluralistic, religiously neutral civil community”. [Saeculum, 173] Nonetheless, the key word here is “implies”, and  Markus does convincingly show that several of the implications of Augustine’s ideas about the saeculum could trend towards pluralism (at least, if not restrained by other elements in his thought). The fact of pluralism does seem to force one to higher, more unifying ground of some sort. Honesty about the character and role of the libido dominandi (see below) in political life is certainly a positive yield.

The first post of ours on Saeculum, covering the introduction and chapter one, began by introducing both Markus and the book itself. It opened with the introduction, which quickly examined some features of Augustine’s ideas about different kinds of political community, and the fractures within a person and between people. The contrast between pride and love, between the desire for mastery (the libido dominandi) and care, determine not only the state of fracture and the state of redemption, respectively, but the fundamental dynamics giving shape to two different social groups (even if these two groups never appear distinctly as groups within time). It then proceeds to lay out Augustine’s perspective on secular and sacred history, as well as scriptural interpretation. Scriptural interpretation was related to God’s activity and speech in and as the course of events. It looked at different kinds of human activity in registering this.

The second post covered chapter two, which traces the notion of tempora christiana, or “Christian times”, as they were understood in figures like Ambrose of Milan and the “post-Theodosian euphoria” expressed in figures like Prudentius. There, the spread of Christianity by the Empire was seen as fulfilling certain prophecies, and widespread thinking took it that then-contemporary times were part of sacred history, the time of the fulfillment of the prophecies. Then we looked at the negative sense of the phrase “Christian times” in the pagan criticism of the age that came to dominate after the sack of Rome in A.D. 410. We looked at Augustine’s early acceptance of this enthusiastic affirmation of his own time period as a new phase in sacred history, and his eventual rejection of it.

In the third post, we covered chapter three. There, Markus’ topic is the ‘two cities’ of Augustine, the earthly city and the heavenly city (the city of God), as two real societies, formed by two different loves that their members share. One of these is the love of self and of the things of this world, taking these as ultimate objects of concern and enjoyment (and all other things for the sake of these). The other is the love of God –the love of eternity and true justice and goodness– which takes God as ultimately delightful and worthy (delighting in and loving other things for the sake of this love). These two loves are the means by which the members of either city are ambiguously united with other members of their own eschatological city (whether the earthly or the heavenly) here in the saeculum, and properly united with them in eternity — and yet the earthly city’s love and ultimate concern for temporal things is not, in the end, properly unitive. The two societies are not the same as the Church and what we would call the “state”: the “state” is open to members of both societies; so is the Church. In both state and Church, the two cities are mixed together here, in time, in the saeculum, where they cannot be disentangled. Government is, thus, secularized by Augustine, seen as tasked with the limited function of preventing injustice and providing worldly stability and security. The Church is also disenchanted, despite the fact that her life is concerned with God: her history is mixed-up with the history of the earthly city here in this age, this saeculum. As a result, the Church’s history, Augustine argues, is not identical with sacred history, the privileged history of God’s acts in the world. State and Church were disenchanted, and in a moderately strong sense, secularized. The two cities coexist here, indistinguishable, until the end of the age, the end of time and history.

Markus himself summarizes chapter four as indicating that “the state and social institutions in general […] ha[ve] no immediate relation to ultimate purposes.” [133] Chapter four began by introducing the difference between the creative political conception of the Greeks, which was active, and in which political life actualized the highest good of humanity, and the biblical conception, in which only God could create the right political order, his people merely waiting as aliens in the meantime, adjusting to this-or-that unjust milieux. The Greek conception generally saw the cosmos as an ordered whole, and the ruler as initiating society into this hierarchical, harmonious whole. At first, Augustine read the biblical text as harmonious with this vision. After a close reading of Paul, however, he changed his mind. Salvation is not ascent up the ladder of the cosmos, and the job of rulers is not to facilitate integration and ascent up said ladder: the ruler’s role is merely to minimize the effects of sin; the very existence of political authority (though not that of social life) is itself the result of sin. This also secularized law from being an eternal law that reflected this perfect and harmonious order, the role of which was to conform individuals and society to the whole, to being merely an instrumental means of minimizing disorder. The chief cause of this disorder is the libido dominandi, the desire for mastery, that causes division between people and the unnatural superiority of some over others. Social life is not about any eternal order, but about our temporal needs, and is organized by shared loves for proximate, worldly good — though members of the two cities, the city of God and the earthly city, love these proximate, temporal goods differently. As we noted above, this saeculum is the overlap of the two cities’ two different ways of loving that are only separated eschatologically. Here and now, the two cities are mixed together in the saeculum.

“What is the Church?” The yield of Augustine’s engagement with the Cyprianic-Donatist African tradition about this question is the subject of chapter five. The Church in Rome and Italy was messianic, forward-looking, full of hope to transform the surrounding culture; in Africa, it was backward-looking, full of tradition and a sense of its own purity and separateness from the world. For figures like Tertullian, the Church was pure and the sphere of the holy, and the world was profane. If the Church were soiled, one must retreat to a reconstituted sphere of holiness. Cyprian transferred this to clergy: only pure clergy offered sanctifying rites. Thus, Christians who were baptized by impure clergy needed to be rebaptized, said the Cyprianic Africans (the Church in Rome disagreed with this practice of rebaptism already in the 3rd century). In the wake of the 3rd-century persecutions, some clergy were accused of being traditores, traitors to the community, creating schisms within the African churches. This led to one group (which came to be known as the Donatists) maintaining a separate church structure from the Catholics; Donatists saw Catholics as a foreign imposition and as the sellout ecclesiastical creature of a worldly power. The separation was held by the Donatists to be legitimized on the grounds that the episcopal ancestors of the Catholics had offered sacrifice to the gods or the emperor (or some such traitorous act) during the persecutions. Augustine separated this “criminal” charge from question about what the Church was, especially the Church’s relation to the world. The Church’s holiness, he maintained, was neither generated nor compromised by human behavior: her holiness is only eschatologically unambiguous. Though [the rites? –the institutions of? –GDS] the Church may be the visible “form” of that eschatological community, here and now, she contains members from both cities, just as the state. Unlike the state, her essence is determined by, and continuous with, the heavenly city, even though her temporal membership, drawn from the saeculum, is mixed. Because of the mixed nature of the saeculum, the line between the holy or pure vs. the profane can’t be mapped onto the difference between the Church and the world, or the Church and the state, but runs through each person. Even the act of persecuting others does not flag one as being profane (and so not holy, and so outside the Church). The duties of the saeculum force even the most noble person, who must be socially engaged, into ambiguous situations, where he or she must choose in relative knowledge and relative ignorance. This destroys the possibility of any “sacral society”, such as “Holy Rome” or any other nation or political group that claims to be holy. The society of the Church in the saeculum is to be described in terms of any other society in the saeculum. Reflections on Augustine’s African subtle resistance of the rising claims of the Roman papacy rounds out the chapter.

In chapter six Markus asks how Augustine could hold to the mixed nature of the saeculum and still support state-sponsored religious coercion. When he subscribed to the Eusebian ideal that the Empire saw the fulfilling of the prophecies on the world stage, subjugating the nations to the worship of Christ, Augustine had theoretical support for the forced conversion of the pagans; after they converted, he lamented the diminished piety within the churches, as coercion could not bring pagans to see the divine light of Christ. He worried that coercion of the Donatists would have the same effect. He no longer believed in Christian empire. How did he justify coercion of the Donatists? The answer is in pastoral theory. The Donatists were separated Christians, not pagans. Pastoral severity was already a possibility in extreme cases for Augustine. Given that sin was not something that we could free ourselves from (God needed to free us for salvation by compelling us and restoring our will to freedom), the parable of the wedding feast in the Gospel According to Luke, where the host of the wedding feast commands his servants to “compel [those outside] to come in” (Luke 14:23), is taken as precedent. The habits leading to a Christian schism such as Donatism were, Augustine became persuaded, taken to be the result of the weight of bad habit. The results he saw of grateful coerced Donatists in his flock persuaded him that this habit could be profitably broken from without by pastoral severity — which state officials could exercise as Christians acting in the person of the Church. Secular rulers were already, in Ambrose of Milan, thought of as servants of the Church. The secular magistrates can be thought of as servants of the Church because society, in Augustine, always tends to break down into the atoms of the persons composing it. A state official does not here represent an autonomous state, distinct from societies such as the Church.   [GDS — It seems that this secular lay “acting from/in the office of the Church” led to an ambiguously clerical understanding of the office of secular rulers, who were anointed with what sounded like pastoral language in the anointings prior to the Investiture Controversy.] Dissolving the state into individuals was how Augustine resisted the idea that the pagan Roman Empire was a holy society, and that the Christian Roman Empire was a holy society.

Chapter seven is not of strictly historical interest, but cuts a path from Augustine to our own day. It was widely panned by critics, and we shall not treat it here. The findings of the miniature studies of the appendices are all worked into the body of the text of the first six chapters.

Highly recommended.

8 thoughts on “R. A. Markus, Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St. Augustine

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