Excerpt #10 — Augustine on (What We Would Call) The State

We have earlier summarized what is perhaps the best book in English on Augustine’s politics (may this excerpt illuminate what is found there, and vice versa), began a summary of Book 19 of his City of God (part one here; pingbacks at the bottom for all other current and future parts), and offered an excerpt of Peter Brown writing about Augustine’s understanding of the Libido Dominandi; here I offer one excellent quote to summarize Augustine’s political vision.

In Book IV, Chapter 4 of his The City of God Against the Pagans, Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354-430) covers the origins of what we would call “the state”. It’s an anachronism when applied to Augustine’s time, but the overlaps are sufficient for our purposes.
Augustine thought that true justice was eschatological, that true justice waited the consummation of the world by God after the end of history, when all things would finally be made right; he thus roots the origins of the state largely in the libido dominandi, and it shows. In this section of the De Civitate Dei, we read that

Justice removed, then, what are kingdoms but great bands of robbers? What are bands of robbers themselves but little kingdoms?
The band itself is made up of men; it is governed by the authority of a ruler; it is bound together by a pact of association; and the loot [148] is divided according to an agreed law. If, by the constant addition of desperate men, this scourge grows to such a size that it acquires territory, establishes a seat of government, occupies cities and subjugates peoples, it assumes the name of kingdom more openly. For this name is now manifestly conferred upon it not by the removal of greed, but by the addition of impunity. It was a pertinent and true answer which was made to Alexander the Great by a pirate whom he had seized. When the king asked him what he meant by infesting the sea, the pirate defiantly replied: ‘The same as you do when you infest the whole world; but because I do it with a little ship I am called a robber, and because you do it with a great fleet, you are an emperor.’ [Augustine, The City of God Against the Pagans, transl. R. W. Dyson (New York: Cambridge, 1998/2013), 147-148]

The last vignette between the pirate and Alexander the Great is apparently from Cicero’s The Republic, a work that has not survived in its entirety.

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