Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Augustine and the Limits of Politics
By Jean Bethke Elshtain
University of Notre Dame Press, 118 pages, $21.95

In this engaging series of meditations, Jean Bethke Elshtain makes a convincing case that Augustine of Hippo (354“430 a.d. ) is a saint for our times. Originally presented as a lecture series at Loyola University of Chicago, this little book, Elshtain writes, is “the story of an engagement, one peregrinus to, and with, another.” Thus, a good deal of its interest and appeal is as a fragment of an intellectual autobiography of Elshtain herself, one of our most original and perceptive political theorists.

Why Augustine? One can easily imagine the author of the Confessions as an exemplar for today’s fortyish sons and daughters of the sexual revolution (and his long-suffering mother Monica as a source of inspiration for their parents). But Elshtain is primarily interested in Augustine’s relevance to contemporary political thought.

Her Augustine is a man of paradoxes. She evokes his delight in “the world” together with his vivid sense of its brokenness; his dedication to the life of the mind along with his awareness of the limits of reason; his ease amidst cultural pluralism and multiple interpretations; his understanding of choice as always constitutive and often tragic; his struggles with temptation and doubt. Her portrait of the aged Augustine critically reexamining his life’s work in a city on the fringes of a crumbling empire suggests a sage with something akin to a postmodern sensibility.

Like a restorer of neglected art works, Elshtain scrapes away the darkened varnish of centuries to bring out lights and shadows in the Augustinian corpus. There is much to ponder in her refreshing and warmly appreciative readings of the City of God and the Confessions , and in the surprising affinities she traces between Augustine and modern writers like Albert Camus and Hannah Arendt. In passing, she rescues Augustine from simplistic charges of pessimism, misogyny, and anti-intellectualism.

Especially interesting is Elshtain’s exploration of Augustine’s implicit cognitive theory. Like Plato, and in contrast to philosophers who exalt pure intellect, the Bishop of Hippo understood the eros of the mind”the role that love, desire, and “yearning” play in the process of human knowing. Moreover, Elshtain emphasizes, he took account of the embodiment of mind and heart. Augustine knew, as she puts it, that “the body is epistemically significant, a source of delight, of travail, of knowledge of good and evil. The body is the mode through which we connect to the world and through which the world discloses itself.” With frequent quotations, she deftly limns the tactile sense, the carnal imagery, the curiosity about beings and things that are such striking characteristics of Augustine’s writing. Rare indeed in philosophical works are passages like the one in the City of God where Augustine marvels at how some people can wiggle their ears, others can perfectly mimic the voices of other men, and some can even “produce musical sounds from their behind”!

It is significant that, for Augustine, the Devil and the bad angels are without bodies. Evil in his schema is not an active principle, but an absence. It is not created, but represents “a kind of noncreation, a draining away” from the goodness of creation. In a fascinating chapter entitled “Augustine’s Evil, Arendt’s Eichmann,” Elshtain traces the likely origin of Arendt’s concept of the “banality of evil” to the City of God , where Augustine divests evil of every pretension to glory.

As his cognitional theory is explained by Elshtain, the fifth-century theologian would be at ease with contemporary philosophers such as Bernard Lonergan, whose theory of knowing begins with self-appropriation. Augustine understood that the self “grasps different truths in different ways at different points, insofar as we are able.” He saw reason and faith as complementary forces that cooperate to bring the knower closer to the truth.

Late-twentieth-century thinkers are rediscovering many things Augustine knew”that knowing begins with the self as a basic datum; that the knower tends to become what he or she knows; and that knowers “must be roused and shaken up from time to time if [they are] to pay real attention once again.” Some are discovering, too, that nothing shakes up one’s settled ways like Scripture.

What has Augustine to do with politics in the modern world? Elshtain reminds us that, for Augustine, we are not political by nature. We order our lives together through connected efforts of will and plan. Commonality among human beings makes politics possible and worthwhile. But pluralism and particularity bedevil attempts at common action. The limits on human reason and the defects in human will translate into limits on politics. “A human being cannot even be certain of ‘his own conduct on the morrow,’ let alone specify and adjudicate that of others in ways he or she foreordains.”

If there is one point about this predicament that Elshtain seems to wish to stress (and one central affinity among Augustine, Arendt, and Elshtain), it is that awareness of the fallen and pluralistic nature of the world “should usher into a rueful recognition of limits, not a will to dominion that requires others for one to conquer.” That is not a counsel for quietism, or even pacifism. It is simply a recognition that action takes place on a field of moral danger and ambiguity. Though Elshtain’s Augustine is suspicious of the state with its urge to dominate, he is no anarchist. He is “respectful of the social and civic arrangements that sinful man has created.” Augustine’s teaching, as Elshtain puts it, is: “Social life on all levels is full of ills and yet to be cherished.”

In the end, the Augustine encountered in this book is not postmodern. His thought is too rich, too modest, and too fertile. It is well symbolized by Elshtain’s colorful cover illustration from the Book of Hours of the Duke de Berry. In the background, framed against a bright blue sky is an elaborate, many-turreted, walled castle; in the foreground are people and animals in a field of fruit ripe for picking. Some of the human figures are engaged in humble tasks; one man has paused to taste the fruit; a pregnant woman is gazing into the distance. The artist’s sophistication, like that of Augustine, coexists harmoniously with an almost naive appreciation of what God has given and human hands have made. Though too faith-filled to be a patron of postmodernity, Augustine does point to what lies beyond”that which is timeless and timely, ever old, ever new.

Mary Ann Glendon is the Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard University.