Saint Augustine by Philippe de Champaigne
St. Augustine, the early Christian theologian and philosopher, once remarked, "To begin with, there never has been, nor is there today, any absence of hostile foreign powers to provoke war." These words, written in a time of upheaval and political turmoil, continue to resonate with the modern world. Augustine understood the perennial nature of conflict, where evil men driven by their lust for power act as aggressors, thus perpetuating a cycle of war. He aptly noted, "When they go to war, what they want is to make, if they can, their enemies their own, and then to impose on them the victor's will and call it peace." Augustine's insights are not only a reflection of his own era but remain strikingly relevant today, yet contemporary political thought has paid little mind to the Bishop of Hippo.
In a world characterized by an increasingly secular and skeptical outlook, the relevance of figures like Augustine is often dismissed as obsolete or, perhaps worse, as having never been relevant at all. It is true that we live in an increasingly post-Christian era, where religious influence continues to wane in the face of rising secularism, scientism, wokeism, and neo-paganism. Augustine and his writings, steeped in a religious worldview that does not easily align with the prevailing secular order, can appear misaligned with the prevailing secular order.
However, I contend that St. Augustine's perspective, when examined within the context of modern political thought, offers an incisive and genuinely critical perspective on political science.
The Resonance of Augustine's Political Thought
One of the most striking aspects of Augustine's political thought is its enduring relevance. Augustine's emphasis on the inevitability of conflict and the corrupting influence of power finds echoes in contemporary international relations. In an age where nations continue to engage in conflict, whether through traditional warfare or more subtle forms of aggression like cyber-attacks and economic coercion, Augustine's warning about the perennial presence of hostile foreign powers retains its prescience.
His understanding of power and its corrupting influence is especially pertinent in the modern context. As political leaders across the globe grapple with issues of integrity and the ethical use of power, Augustine's insights provide a framework for examining the ethical dimensions of political authority. His recognition that power can be wielded for both noble and ignoble ends remains an essential consideration in contemporary politics.
The Just War Theory
St. Augustine's most enduring contribution to political thought lies in his development of the Just War Theory. In a world where conflicts and wars persist, Augustine's moral framework for assessing the legitimacy of war continues to inform international relations and ethical decision-making. The principles of the Just War Theory, including the necessity, proportionality, and right intention, offer a moral compass that resonates with contemporary debates over the use of military force.
In a time when questions about the ethics of humanitarian intervention, preemptive strikes, and the responsibility to protect vulnerable populations loom large on the global stage, Augustine's ethical considerations provide a foundation for evaluating the justice of military actions. The Just War Theory remains central in shaping discussions around international law and the responsibility of states to protect the rights and well-being of their citizens and others.
The City of God and the Secular State
Augustine's magnum opus, "The City of God," delves into the complex relationship between religion and politics. While the contemporary world appears to be moving towards secularism, it is crucial to appreciate that the principles Augustine espoused in "The City of God" still have relevance for the modern secular state. Augustine's understanding of the separation between the earthly city and the City of God has influenced discussions surrounding the role of religion in politics and the concept of a secular state.
Today, the debate over the separation of church and state remains a topic of enduring importance. Augustine's distinction between the two realms serves as a historical reference point for modern discussions on the role of religion in governance. It also raises questions about the nature of political authority, the moral foundations of the state, and the pursuit of justice in a pluralistic society.
Original Sin and the Study of Human Nature
Augustine's concept of original sin, a core element of his theological philosophy, has implications for our understanding of human nature in the political realm. His belief in the inherent fallenness of humanity contributes to contemporary debates about the nature of political authority and the constraints that must be placed on it. Augustine's view of human nature as inclined toward sinfulness underscores the importance of checks and balances in political systems, as well as the need for vigilance against the abuse of power.
In an age when discussions about the potential dangers of unchecked authority and the importance of individual rights are central to political discourse, Augustine's perspective on human nature serves as a reminder of the need for caution and accountability in the exercise of political power.
St. Augustine's significance in contemporary politics is both undeniable and underappreciated. His insights into the inevitability of conflict, the ethical use of power, the principles of just war, the relationship between religion and the state, and the study of human nature continue to offer valuable perspectives for understanding and addressing modern political challenges. While we may live in a secular age, Augustine's enduring relevance in the realm of political thought reminds us that wisdom from the past can shed light on the complex issues of the present. By revisiting Augustine's writings and engaging with his ideas, we can enrich our political discourse and find valuable guidance in our ongoing quest for a more just and peaceful world.