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Christ and the Just Society in the Thought of Augustine
by robert dodaro
cambridge university press, 262 pages, $75

In the year 412 Augustine received from the pagan pro-consul of Africa a series of questions about the Incarnation and other Christian teachings. The topics arose out of regular gatherings of a group of friends in Carthage, and in his letter Volusian flatters Augustine that he is the only one able to provide answers. Ignorance may be tolerated in other priests, he says, but “when it comes to Augustine the bishop, whatever he may happen not to know is a deficiency in the matter itself.” In response Augustine reminds him of the words of the sage Jesus ben Sirach: “When a man has come to the end, he is just beginning.”

Shortly afterward, Marcellinus, the imperial commissioner and friend of Volusian, wrote to Augustine with additional questions, some of which shifted the discussion from theology to Christianity’s relation to the political order. “The preaching and teaching of Christ,” writes Marcellinus, “is in no way compatible with the practices of the state, since, as many say, it is clear that it is his commandment that we should repay no one with evil for evil, that we should offer the other cheek to one who strikes us.” Such teachings “are contrary to the practices of the state.”

These were not theoretical questions to be debated calmly in the secluded comfort of one’s country villa. The empire was being threatened by hostile invaders. The Goths had plundered their way down through Italy to sack Rome in 410, and the Vandals had crossed the Straits of Gibraltar to menace the olive groves and cities of Roman North Africa. Augustine took the challenge seriously, and he responded to Volusian and Marcellinus in several lengthy letters. In a substantive new book, Christ and the Just Society in the Thought of Augustine , Robert Dodaro, professor at the Institutum Patristicum in Rome, draws on these letters to frame the discussion of Augustine’s understanding of a just society and of his great work the City of God. His approach offers an illuminating glimpse into Augustine’s thinking.

Urbane and sophisticated, Volusian was a well-educated member of an old Roman family, thoroughly at home in Latin literature and proud of the inheritance he had received from his teachers. Augustine was formed in this same world, and he begins his response by appealing to the Roman understanding of civic virtue as presented by Cicero in his treatise De Re Publica , a work both he and Volusian knew well. This same work of Cicero’s is cited by Augustine in book two of the City of God for its definition of a commonwealth, and again at a key point in the argument in book nineteen. What Augustine is after, Dodaro shows, is the term iustitia (justice), a key component in Cicero’s definition of a true commonwealth.

But “justice” is also a central term in the Bible. In fact, the first paragraph of the City of God alludes to the famous passage from the prophet Habakkuk, “the just shall live by faith,” and in book nineteen Augustine cites Habakkuk twice, most notably at a point where he links the just person ( iustus ) to the justice ( iustitia ) due God “who rules an obedient city according to his grace.” As the just person lives by faith, says Augustine, so the association of just men and women lives by faith active in love, the love by which one loves God alone and one’s neighbor as oneself.

For Augustine justice begins and ends with religious devotion, the love and adoration of God. Where God does not receive his due there can be no justice and no right ( ius ). He begins with Cicero, but then Augustine shifts the discussion away from the political vocabulary familiar to Latin thinkers and fills the term justice with scriptural content. From start to finish Augustine’s approach is theological: Justice has to do with knowing and loving God. “Piety,” writes Dodaro, “is the pinnacle of all civic virtues.”

But, because of sin, human beings are incapable of knowing and loving God without God’s grace. Against the views of Roman statesmen and philosophers, Augustine argues that God is knowable only through the mystery of the Incarnation. Consequently there can be no justice without Christ.

In some of the most interesting pages in this book Dodaro draws direct links between the arguments in the City of God and Augustine’s response to Pelagius. It is seldom noticed (at least in discussions of the City of God) that the Latin terms for justice and justification come from the same Latin root (lost in English when the biblical term “justice” is translated as “righteousness”). Without grace there can be no justification, but without grace there can also be no justice. Both justice and justification are possible only through union with the just man, Christ.

If Christ is the only one who lived without sin, the only truly just man ( iustus ) and mediator of justice, then he is the measure of virtue (justice being the first of the cardinal virtues). The question then becomes: How does the human soul comprehend the nature of virtue? Dodaro provides a wide-ranging and instructive account of the role of the scriptures (the Christian rhetoric that displaces the traditional Latin rhetoric) in forming the understanding and character of the statesman. The classical definition of justice was to “render to each his due,” but according to Augustine, this must be understood in light of the biblical precept, “Let no one owe anything except to love one another.”

As one illustration of how Augustine reasons Dodaro examines his response to Volusian’s judgment that non-violence was the teaching of Scripture. Augustine believes that Volusian had arbitrarily chosen one strand of biblical teaching while ignoring others. If scripture is taken as a whole, he argues, it offers a deeper moral wisdom about the use of violence. His examples are suggestive. When struck, Christ does not “turn the other cheek.” He asks the guard: “If I have said something wrong, then reproach me . . . . If I have spoken well, why do you strike me?” When Paul is struck by a guard at the order of Ananias, he mocks the chief priest and says, “God will strike you, whitewashed wall!” We must, says Augustine, “do many things against the will” of certain people, because they need to be “punished with a certain kind of harshness.” What we cannot do, he says, is return evil for evil with a desire for vengeance.

By drawing extensively on his letters, Dodaro allows the reader to see how Augustine responded to concrete problems faced by magistrates and judges. Again and again Augustine shows that moral reasoning must be transformed by the deeper wisdom offered by Christ and the Scriptures. In another case involving rebels who had repented of their involvement in an uprising, Augustine urges clemency, not only for the sake of mercy but because of justice. Repentance was, it must be remembered, a long regime of public penitence. As biblical support he appeals to the woman caught in adultery in the Gospel of John and Nathan’s tale to David in 2 Samuel.

Over the last several generations an earlier political reading of the City of God has given way to a more overtly theological interpretation. Dodaro takes this tradition of scholarship to a much deeper level in Augustine’s thought. Augustine may have been addressing issues and ideas that are political, but he offers no theory of the state and few thoughts on the nature of political institutions. Though the City of God speaks of two cities, in truth Augustine shows little interest in the earthly city as such.

Even book nineteen of the City of God , read most often because of its presumed political implications, ends with a discussion of the justice due God. Quoting the psalm verse, “Happy the people whose God is the Lord,” Augustine says, “It follows that a people alienated from that God must be wretched.” In Augustine’s thinking there is no place for a society that does not honor God.

In the introduction to Christ and the Just Society in the Thought of Augustine , Dodaro remarks that Augustine followed Cicero in “focusing the concept of the just society on the role of its leaders in establishing justice.” Throughout the book, the understanding and behavior of the statesman holds the center of attention. In Dodaro’s reading of Augustine, the just society is the work of virtuous leaders”to which one must say, fair enough. And yet, the reader reaches the final pages of Dodaro’s book wondering why Augustine had used the metaphor of a city to portray those united to Christ, why he speaks of the association of those who love God, and why he quotes a psalm verse that begins “Happy the people .” Though the phrase “just society” appears in the title of Dodaro’s book, there is scant attention to the corporate dimension of the city of God.

Without intending to, Dodaro has given us an individualistic reading of Augustine’s thinking about the just society. But Christ’s coming had issued in the forming of a new community, a social event, and Augustine insists that the City of God is a corporate body, an association of believers. The philosophers had taught that the life of the wise man should be social. We agree with this, says Augustine, and “how could that City have made its first start, how could it have advanced along its course, how could it attain its appointed goal, if the life of the saints were not social?” For Cicero there was only one society, de re publica , but Augustine belonged to an alternate society, and it is as another city, not just as individuals, that the people of God relate to the earthly city.

Dodaro seems reluctant to draw out the consequences of his argument. After his careful analysis of the roots of Augustine’s thinking on the just society, he leaves it to the reader to speculate as to how his perspective relates to the larger questions posed by his theme. For example there is no discussion of the celebrated passage in book nineteen on the “compromise between human wills [of the two cities] about the things relevant to mortal life.” Some have argued that here Augustine makes place for a neutral space in which men and women can come together to build a just society on the basis of “things relevant to this mortal life.” Dodaro’s thinking runs in a quite different direction, but the reader gets little guidance on how to negotiate this crux interpretum .

In sum, Christ and the Just Society in the Thought of Augustine is a first-class study of Augustine that broadens and deepens our understanding of his thought. The use of Augustine’s correspondence with magistrates and public officials to present his thinking is fresh and engaging. And Dodaro is surely correct in his depiction of the reasoning that informs Augustine’s judgments on particular social and political problems. Yet one wishes the book had another chapter (or a reflective conclusion) that addresses the inevitable questions raised by any discussion of the just society.

Robert Louis Wilken is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of the History Christianity at the University of Virginia.