The Philosophy of Law in The Writings of Augustine

Social Philosophy and Policy Foundation, Bowling Green, OH, USA


8.1 Life and Writings of Augustine

The Christian theologian and bishop 1of Hippo, Augustine (Aurelius Augustinus), was born in A.D. 354 to a non-Christian father and a Christian mother in that part of Roman North Africa that is today Algeria. Despite his mother’s efforts Augustine initially found her religion uncongenial and intellectually unsophisticated. He received an education typical of ambitious, provincial Romans, becoming a student of Latin rhetoric in Carthage before he left for Rome in 383, whereafter he became a teacher of rhetoric in Milan. As had been the case during the last century of the Roman Republic, to be skilled in oratory with its uses in legal practice and local governance could lead to a civil service posting. During the late Roman Empire Augustine had considered such a career option. He had friends and contemporaries with whom he corresponded throughout his life who had chosen this path. As this chapter will show, Augustine’s familiarity with the intricacies of contemporary Roman law had important consequences for his own political theory where he expressed his views not only on what politics was for but also on the compatibility of Christianity and politics.

Augustine harnessed a developing Christian doctrine to a set of distinctly imperial Roman discourses and realities in order to present, in his magisterial City of God, an image of two cities, the earthly and the heavenly, and their respective citizens. This considered perspective on history and politics, and the role of positive civil law in the lives of men, would be formulated rather later in his turbulent life lived in turbulent times. It would achieve its most mature form in the City of God XIX. What we may call his moral philosophy, however, began earlier in his increasing dissatisfaction with the legacies of ancient philosophy and the explanations philosophers had offered about human nature, self-knowledge, the respective roles of reason and will in determining moral responsibility, and on the nature of moral evil (see Evans 1982). Augustine’s contribution to a Christian philosophy of law, then, may be said to fall into two successive but overlapping chronological periods, that of his own spiritual autobiography and his debt to ancient philosophy, and that of his reflection on Rome’s history, not least as a consequence of the empire having adopted Christianity as the state religion (380) during his own lifetime. The development of his moral philosophy took on new dimensions as he came to explore Roman and world history in the light of scripture and the role of the contemporary, institutional church. Thereafter, it gave rise to what may be called his political theory where he explained the role of any state’s law in men’s lives. Augustine’s thinking about law has philosophical, theological, and historical dimensions.2

Augustine experienced a series of intellectual and spiritual conversions throughout his life and recounted these in his Confessions and in numerous letters to friends. He tells his readers that his training in rhetoric was meant to lead to a profession in the law and thence to a post as governor (Conf. VI.11.19). But his youthful enthusiasms drew him instead to philosophy after having read Cicero’s Hortensius. It was to the skepticism of the New Academy as he found it largely in Cicero’s other writings that he next turned.3 He had learned much of what he knew of the classical and Hellenistic Greek philosophers from Cicero, his master in rhetoric, and from Cicero’s contemporary, the encyclopedic polymath M. Terentius Varro.4 Thereafter, he became familiar with Plotinus and some unknown Platonist writings, most likely in recent Latin translations, and it is through these works that he met a platonizing interpretation of Christianity. Despite his appropriation of an amalgam of ancient philosophical positions whose principal ingredient was Platonism, Augustine’s own acquaintance with Plato’s writings seems to have been largely secondhand and notably through Cicero (e.g., Tusculan Disputations, de Finibus, etc.).5 These were supplemented by his experience of hearing the bishop of Milan, Ambrose, preach a version of Christianity that demonstrated his sophisticated familiarity with Greek Christian theology of the first to fourth centuries A.D., along with pagan, Jewish, and Christian Greek neo-Platonism and its Latin derivatives.6

The historical development of Christianity itself, and especially its ethical and political doctrines during its first centuries, was a process of continuous “translation” of its sources stretching back to pre-Christian Stoicism and Hellenistic Judaism.7 Ambrose in particular had read the works of Philo, Origen, and Plotinus, absorbing the fundamental antithesis between soul and body. He identified Paul’s war between the flesh and spirit (Rom. 7:23) with the Platonist opposition between body and mind. Augustine heard him argue that man’s mind is superior to his body, which is a mere “veil,” indeed, a “perilous mudslick” that entices the will to slip. But because Christ sits in the inner person, having come to humanity in human flesh and thereby mediating the antithesis between heaven and earth, man can, even in this life, but with Christ’s help through baptism, still the body’s instincts. Ambrose emphasized far less than did the ancient philosophical tradition any long purification of the soul through spiritual paideia (“education”). Swift baptism secures the required transformation. Ambrose also defended the Old Testament against Manichaeism, a sect to which Augustine had been attracted while in North Africa and to which he maintained a somewhat troubled allegiance. In contrast to the dualism of Manichaeism, which proposed a doctrine of two cosmic forces of spiritual good and material evil in perpetual combat and which thereby limited the omnipotence of God, Ambrose urged his Christian congregation to think of God and the soul as distinct from material reality altogether. He further raised the possibility that belief was the prerequisite for understanding. Augustine was thus forced to confront a contemporary philosophical and cultural world that was constituted primarily by eclectic mixtures of Stoicism and varieties of Platonism. Under the influence of prominent Christians in Milan, notably the priest and Christian Platonist Simplicianus, he converted to Catholic Christianity and was baptized in 387. He returned to North Africa to live the monastic life, and was ordained as a priest in 391.

Nothing survives of Augustine’s pre-conversion writings. His Confessions were written in 399, almost thirteen years after he converted to Christianity. The influence of Platonism endured throughout his life, even as his “philosophical models” became increasingly theological hypotheses learned out of scripture, notably from a re-examination of Paul’s epistles, developed in his rejection of Manichaeism and Porphyry’s tract Against the Christians, and were elaborated in debates with schismatic and heretical groups such as Donatists and Pelagians within the North African church where he had been elevated to bishop in 396 (see Coleman 1994). Insofar as all the writings we possess of Augustine are Christian, they are the work of a controversialist. They grew out of his arguments with his pre-Christian self, on the one hand, and with views current among his contemporaries both within North Africa (especially as he dealt with the pastoral burdens of being a bishop) and throughout the wider world of the late Roman Empire, on the other. He remained in North Africa for almost 35 years until his death in 430.8

8.2 Augustinian Ethics

Most analyses of Augustine’s writings attempt to place his thought within the various legacies of Hellenistic philosophy (e.g., Kent 2001). His philosophical milieu was the practical, eudaimonistic framework of Greek philosophy during the Hellenistic period (e.g., Epicurean, skeptic, and Stoic), which became more pronounced under the Roman Empire. Pagan philosophy, and especially neo-Platonism, moved closer to religion, indeed to a distinctive, increasingly ascetic Latin Roman version of religion for that “western” part of Rome which was Augustine’s fourth- and early-fifth-century milieu.

Augustine was to reuse topics dealing with the virtuous life selected from the agenda of ancient ethical theory. He, too, would focus on the question of happiness and examine the various educational and spiritual exercises recommended for seeking the truth in this mortal life. He believed that all men wish to be happy and the thing signified by the word “happiness” somehow lies in men’s memory. In Confessions (X.20–23) he asks where or when he had any experience of happiness that he should remember, love, and long for it again. Have we at some time in the past been happy, individually or through Adam, and now know that we have lost this but remember enough to know what we have lost? Is there a natural appetite to learn of happiness as something utterly unknown, or is it somehow known and preserved but obscured in the memory?9 Augustine equates seeking God with seeking happiness, and he speaks of all men’s desire to have joy in truth—not in the seeking but in the finding, in being united with God, in living with God (Conf. X.28). But this cannot occur in this life. If God is either truth or something higher than truth, then the standard (regula) which is called truth is higher than the human mind and beyond our mortal experiences.10 Until approximately 411 Augustine accepted that all men have a natural desire for God (see Burns 1980). Thereafter, the natural desire was replaced with a divine gift of charity—grace—which alone provides man’s orientation to true happiness. But he always viewed man’s life on earth as a trial without intermission, shifting between adversity and fear of future adversity. It is framed by various offices that require the officeholder to be loved and feared by men, men seeking to be praised and their power feared, not for any truth in their intentions or acts but rather relying on deceitful judgments of their fellows.11 Augustine calls this a fellowship of like punishment (Conf. X.36). To escape it, he thought that there was some hope in a monastic setting, and he wrote to his friend Nebridius in 389–390 that he was experiencing a kind of deification through self-disciplined Christian philosophy. This, too, would be rejected, and thirty years later he would see “deification” as a tolerable thought only when considered as God’s salvific justification after death (CD XIX.22).

From his own experiences of himself and others as ethical agents in the world, Augustine gradually came to the conclusion that men, including those reputed to be wise, are not now capable of giving absolute priority to the moral good or to seeing this as consistent with their nature. Rather, all men show themselves to be massively inconsistent and irrational agents who are forever frustrated in their search to understand whether or not their nature is conducive to the practice of virtue. He concluded that any correlation between a person’s state of moral development and his understanding of his own nature is impossible to achieve autonomously and is meaningless without God’s help. The only kind of person who can be relied on to look to the general interest of others and see that other-related virtue is natural must be someone who has been prepared and aided by God’s grace in the achievement of this ethical state. There is no philosophical method to enable one to do this on one’s own and with success. The power of autonomous human reason is incapable of changing a man’s desires: No unaided mental process can enable any individual to arrive at the true grasp of the good so that he might live in accordance with the real. Through the power of introspection humans can to some degree reach a vision of truth or God within themselves. But if, as the Stoics had it, the beginning of understanding is in a pre-rational impulse that starts from an animal’s or infant’s love of self and self-awareness,12 then for Augustine we can go no further. Introspection only provides a recognition of the existence of the truth within ourselves that is God; it does not provide an understanding of either our own or the divine nature.13

Augustine’s reflection on and absorption of themes in ancient skepticism (principally from Cicero’s Academica) led him to make claims about the importance of belief as distinct from knowledge, even before he developed his ideas concerning human dependence on God for the possibility of any moral behavior. He shows in his Against the Academics (Contra Academicos) how seriously he takes radical ancient skepticism and, likewise, how seriously he is seeking answers to counter it.14 He concludes that human certitude exists but that it is limited. He argues that one cannot believe falsely, that is, be mistaken in one’s belief that one exists (Trin. XV.12.21; CD XI.26, XIX.18). He also believes that through introspection we can come to recognize the existence, though not the nature, of God. But the result of this introspection—self-awareness, self-love, and self-concern—is insufficient and, therefore, is incapable of leading either to self-understanding or to being extended to other-regarding intentions or acts. Even self-awareness can be diminished by carnal habits. The limits on self-understanding result in a recognition of unfulfilled desires. The dissatisfaction with one’s search for truth is replaced with the necessity of the belief in one’s dependence on an outside, unmerited redirection of willed attention. The necessity of belief and our dependence, for the plausibility of that belief, on the credibility of the authority that provides it were essential to Augustine’s perspective on the conduct of human life. Authority is always followed when humans cannot have firsthand experiences, notably of the past, and most of our understanding of the past relies on the plausible testimonies of others (Conf. VI.5.7).15 Humans necessarily take things on trust; they trust the authoritative community within which they acquire conventional languages and habits, traditions, and laws, and they weigh the plausible positions of authorities in order to settle disputes. Humans should not be characterized as knowers but as believers.

Furthermore, where Stoics argued that what matters is whether the morally right act is performed for the right reason and intention, that motives are to be in accord with right reason for them to be virtuous, Augustine also focused on moral intention rather than on the act, but instead insisted that to perform the good act in the right spirit requires God’s grace. This is because man is good not because of what he knows or does but because of what he loves (CD XI.28). Without God’s aid humans cannot assent to what is truly to be loved, because they experience a divided will with its competing loves and what they love inordinately is themselves rather than God. (The will is now a set of loves accepted and confirmed. We are what we love.)

Augustine came to see the human condition as tragic, a consequence of the Fall following Adam’s first disobedience as told in the Old Testament book of Genesis. Augustine provides an account of the post-lapsarian man in On Free Will (ca. 395) as both invincibly ignorant of what is of supreme importance to us and morally weak in the ancient philosophical sense of akrasia (“weakness of will”) (see Kahn 1988). Men struggle and fail to do what they wish to do, although they know what they ought to do (Rom. 7:14–23). Later, he would give an account of pre-lapsarian Adam: Before the Fall Adam was able to decide between good and evil, knowing the difference and being able to exercise a “lesser virtue” of making the right choice. According to Augustine’s views (after 411), Adam was in the position of knowing what is evil and being able to choose it. In Paradise he enjoyed divine grace as a “help without which” he could not choose the good or even avoid evil. But divine grace for Adam in Paradise was a necessary, although insufficient, condition of his free choice of the good. It did not render him incapable of sin, but it ensured that he had the means for choosing the good.16 Freedom of choice on its own was not the sufficient condition of doing good; only free choice coupled with divine grace suffices for doing good.17 After the Fall, without divine assistance, man is no longer able to choose the good, and he is now motivated by his desires certainly to choose evil. His free choice is a decision already directed by his present incapacity to be motivated by pure love in any of his acts. Without God’s intervention he will now choose what is wrong because of what he loves, namely, his own private goods, his own autonomy, his self-sufficiency, and his domination of others.

These views are central to Augustine’s justification of law in the societies of men whereby their distorted loves will be regulated to secure peace and order. Men need to be freed from their fallen “free choice.” The capacity to choose, of itself, is not man’s excellence. Nor is man’s will the kind of deliberated desire that can be used as a means to achieve his moral end. In On Free Will he has a concept of the will after the Fall as a middle good that is neutral and can be used either rightly or wrongly. From the will as an indifferent instrument, he moves on to a concept of will as good or evil depending on the value of what is willed (Conf. VIII.8.19–9.21). He would later18 see that the will is either good or evil and that a good will is from God; the only way the human will may be moved from being an evil to a good will is through grace (On Grace and Free Will XX.41).19 It is grace that attracts the will to what is true and good. In his later works the will is the human psyche in its role as a moral agent: goal-directed, active to some purpose, desirous of its objects (see Rist 1969). Grace transforms and activates this will. Hence, after the Fall man’s will is more closely connected to a set of short-term, habituated wants. Man retains a power of free choice, but his freedom is merely the freedom or power to sin. What he wants needs to be transformed so that he loves what is truly to be loved: God. Man, therefore, needs God’s preparation of his will and to have his free will restored by grace in the sense of being released from its corrupt, delusive mutation that we are free to do “what we like” (Ep. 157.2.10). He goes further and says that it needs not only preparation by God, but God also eternally and timelessly foreknows that it will be so for both the saved and the damned, without that foreknowledge determining events in men’s lives (On the Predestination of the Saints III.7; Iohann. Evangel. CXXIV.48.4.6, CVII.7, CXI.5).20

But in this life no one can be completely freed from his fallen freedom and no one has a “right” to be freed. Even the (unknown) elect cannot be rewarded for something for which they are not responsible: God’s gift of salvific grace to some and not others. Augustine’s final view in the City of God XIII was to deny that man even tries to do what he wishes to do and to know what he ought to do: He does not try at all and he certainly fails.21 It is this irrational and unintelligible nature that, in the end, requires the kind of punitive law of states that Augustine would outline elsewhere in the City of God.22 Our condition here is penal. Man’s behavior is determined not by reasoning but by the set of his will, which is a morass of habitual loves and hates (83 Questions, 40). Augustine had earlier discussed how bad habits can only be broken by suffering not only at the hands of men and their law, but also in the schoolroom: He describes how he was driven with threats and savage punishments to learn Greek (Conf. I.14.23). Later in life he saw man as needing to be continuously driven to correction, by the church’s unwelcome discipline, by the father’s punitive discipline in the home, and by the state’s punitive discipline through enforced law and the executioner. If it is not in our power to reform ourselves, it is also not in our power to reform underlying evils that structure secular society: We can only vary them fatalistically. Augustine’s final view was that the kind of man who needs God’s grace is a man who requires utter transformation. It is the transformation of Saul into St. Paul. The transformation that is promised only to those predestined to salvation—not all are saved (CD XIII.23; Ench. XXVII.103)—is not a return to the original, Adamic moral self before the Fall, but rather, the gift of a self better than Adam (CD XIII.24; XXII.30).

In opposition to the philosophical tradition, men are now unable to achieve their drive toward perfection, wholeness, fulfillment, and peace. Like Paul, Augustine came to deny that the order that leads through all things to God is to be found in human affairs or revealed either in human philosophy or human law (Rom. 3:28). The possibility of securing happiness through the government of the wise, through following the rigors of outward legal precepts, or through men perfectly dedicated either to philosophy or to what they conceive of as God, is, in the end, an illusion. Since human society is irremediably rooted in disordered and tension-ridden history the only resolution of ultimate desires must be eschatological. Consequently, the itinerary to perfection involves finding rather than seeking the truth. Hence, Augustine explained what the immortal happy next life consists in. He criticized what he took to be pagan philosophy’s false accounts of happiness and their bad advice on how to achieve it, changing his own mind as he moved further away from his youthful “Hellenistic” perspectives to a reliance on the Bible, Paul, and the teachings of an increasingly unified, institutional church. He sought, as did philosophers, a moral philosophy—but one based in scripture—that would reveal what has intrinsic, as opposed to instrumental, worth for us. Once this was clarified, he would show how politics should be seen as merely useful rather than as something having intrinsic worth.

We can draw the contrast between ancient and Christian ethics as follows. The answer to the question concerning the scope of human responsibility and free will, for much of ancient ethics as a whole and, in particular, for Stoic ethics, came in their refusal to consider any impulses or desires as inaccessible to rational guidance and discourse. But by the early-fifth century, and especially for Augustine, ancient ethics was seen as part of a perverse human fantasy of self-perfection, self-sufficient omnipotence, and self-dependent authority. The whole philosophical tradition exemplified, for Augustine, man’s original sin, that of pride which rejoices in private goods and a perverse self-love. Augustine argued that for man’s will to be free it cannot be understood as autonomous. Without Christian revelation we are nothing more than bundles of competing selves, with no sages in our midst. Where ancient ethics focused on man’s ability to know himself and his responsibility either for self-perfection in the creation of a unified moral self or for successfully crafting his character to suit his circumstances, Augustine insisted that we can only be inwardly certain of self-existence. Humans may desire, but through their own efforts can never achieve, tranquility and moral wholeness.

Human autonomy is, then, a delusion of self-determination. Politics is no more than a symptom of the multiplicity of fallen man’s partial and often competing loves. Augustine’s answer to the question concerning the degree to which it is possible to treat man as having a measure of rational control over his political environment or even over his conscious moral intentions is that it is exceedingly limited. Here he absorbs aspects of ancient skepticism. But to this he adds the necessity of receiving God’s unmerited grace so that a man’s nature might be prepared and repaired if he is to experience moral development at all.

8.3 Augustine on Law and Order

At the basis of Augustine’s conception of law and order is the “eternal law” (lex aeterna), that eternal plan of the world, reason, and the divine will, where the divine order respects the divinely created natural order and is inscribed in the human soul as the “natural law” (lex naturalis).23 Each conscience, including a pagan’s, is constrained by this natural law, and for this reason pagans are also able to formulate “the most useful of precepts” (praecepta utilissima). At first Augustine thought that human law could contribute substantially to man’s itinerary toward perfection, in that it reflects the eternal law, and as a principle in nature is accessible to men through reason. The order of nature and the order expressed in human choices and enacted in human action could, thereby, constitute two streams of divine providence in the world. He observed that Christianity provides a new orientation in that it posits that the natural law (lex naturalis) is anterior to both Mosaic and New Testament law. But Christianity also insists that God has his law written down so as to prevent men from invoking the excuse of ignorance of its precepts (Enarr. in Psal. 57.1 [= PL 36.673]). Augustine came to deny the unaided capacity for good in man, and he also refused to accept the philosophical position that a few, wise men have such a capacity and that having this capacity is all that matters. The written Mosaic and New Testament law is there for all and, having been written, it is understood by a weakened but still flickering light of reason. But corrupt wills can, in practice, ignore its light. Where the moral law of the Old Testament is in substance identical with the natural law, Christian law perfects it. Its object is to go beyond the Ten Commandments and provide guidance to prevent one from doing to others what one would not wish done to oneself (Ep. 157.3.15 [= CSEL 44.463]; Enarr. in Psal. 118; Sermo 25.4 [= PL 37.1574]). The natural law (lex naturalis) is, then, the source and measure of human positive law, and the human legislator’s mission is to follow its prescriptions. But the legislator need not order everything that the natural law prescribes nor forbid everything it forbids. Augustine saw the legislator’s mission as realizing on earth the order that is necessary for human society to attain its temporal and spiritual ends. Hence, legislators are engaged in adapting the eternal law to the varieties of peoples and their social relations at a given time. Eternal law is the unwritten plan of everything, expressive of the divine will as divine order. It is larger than but pervades the created natural order. In man, as part of the created order, it is inscribed as lex in his soul, and written down in Old and New Testament law as commandments which constitute the divine law whose precepts should be recapitulated in the positive law of societies to fix men’s obligations to one another. Legislators take into account the conditions of the times and the characters of the people being governed; it is the conformity to divine law’s precepts that gives human law its obligatory force. But fallible human legislators achieve their end of legislating in conformity with the eternal law by means of historically and temporally judged forms of punitive constraint.

Augustine later defined human law (ius humanum)—both secular imperial law and human ecclesiastical law—as it was developing in his own time in opposition to divine law. His view of moral evil and his increasing focus on the disordered will in fallen men entailed not only that it is impossible to construct an institutional or legal utopia in this life, but that peace and order on earth also require utilitarian strategies to “do good” to a man against his will in order to secure temporary peace and concord in society. Acculturation to moral norms is to be achieved through infliction of pain throughout the whole of men’s lives because both psychological and physical pain are, for him, the essential and enduring conditions of living a fallen, human life (see Rom. 5:3–4; cf. Cicero, Tusc. II). He came to argue that the state and its laws cannot make men good or even capable of performing any good act with the right intentions. Rather, it is punishment that constrains us to obey the law. The law does not and cannot reeducate us. Augustine’s mature conception of the state is that it is a temporal power that rightly has the monopoly of coercive force. This is so, regardless of any attempts by legislators or philosophers to justify by moral principle either the state’s foundations or the means employed to secure its end. Augustine thereby argued not for the moral but for the functional “reason of state”: The state and its absolute sovereign authority is the power that is ordained by an inscrutable but loving God; the state has the sole authority to define the terms of justice in this world in order to secure peace and order, even if this definition appears to man to be unjust. We shall see that Augustine argued that there is no legitimate individual resistance to political authority, even when it appears unjust, so long as it serves the end of securing peace and order and, thereby, ensuring men’s conformity to the natural law.

8.4 Augustine the Roman in His Times

The half century from around 380 to approximately 430 marked a watershed in the cultural and religious history of western Europe (see Markus 1990; Herrin 1987; Fox 1986; Brown 1972; Coleman 2000, vol. 1; Hunt 1993). The last great controversy over the Altar of Victory in the Roman Senate (382–4)—a conflict between aristocratic pagan Romans with an allegiance to Roman traditions of government and a history of successful expansion and domination, on the one hand, and the Christian regime of emperor Theodosius I in the 390 s, on the other—had been preceded by a long preparation for Christianity’s triumph. In the late-third century Christians had begun to penetrate every level of Roman society and to assimilate the cultural lifestyles and education of Roman townsmen. Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in 312 and the subsequent flow of imperial favor brought an increase in Christian respectability, prestige, and wealth. By 350 there was very little that seemed to separate a Christian from his pagan counterpart. If Christianity began as a religion attracting the lower classes, by the mid-fourth century the conversion of the upper classes was well underway and their roles in the Senate and civil service expanded. Roman government and education were running down in the western provinces, since Constantine had shifted the bureaucratic center of the empire eastward to Constantinople. Rome was seen by some as a traditionalist backwater. In Rome’s social structure and governmental administrative functions, there was a growing prominence of the military and the Christian clergy with their more clerically orientated and scriptural culture. The western part of the empire experienced the spread of an ascetic mentality with its heightened attention to questions concerning Christian identity: What is it to be a Christian? Is being a Christian a special way of being a Jew? How much of the Jewish law is to be applied and how much to be dismissed as of no religious importance? Where does religion end and secular traditions, especially as enshrined in Roman law, custom, and history, begin? To what degree is religion attached to the manners of the inner or outer man? This was the Pauline agenda, penetrated by Stoic and neo-Platonist insights.

It has often been noted by historians that in the pagan polytheistic world, notably of Rome, religion touched everything. A Roman’s religion and his civic contribution to the preservation of the “state” were intertwined, since morality and religion were public expressions. Early Christians, however, were regarded, like Jews, with suspicion and as teaching a private religion, caring little for the survival of Roman institutions, customs, and values. They were seen as dedicated to an apocalyptic vision of a united society after Rome and history, and underwent, as a consequence, waves of persecution by Roman authorities and local communities. But by the late-fourth century, the mass Christianization of Roman society was depriving Christians of a discernible identity clearly separable from their pagan neighbors, since Christians could now take for granted the recognition of their church and relegate to the past the collective experience of persecution and martyrdom. But insofar as there was little—other than his religion—to distinguish an educated Christian in this late-Roman world from his educated non-Christian counterpart, intellectuals (not least Augustine) at first found it easy to pass from Stoicism and neo-Platonism to Christianity, because of pagan philosophy’s instruction on the soul’s access to another, more real world, its return to the One and the soul’s own origin, and to truth. In the Confessions, Augustine describes his conversion to Christianity by means of his prior conversion to Platonism with its rational control of the body and an ascetic morality of detachment as a means to inner freedom. Indeed, he spent the first months after his conversion in the company of Christian friends in philosophical retirement, linking, as he then saw it, his unbroken progression from philosophical conversion to his adoption of a monastic and contemplative mode of life at Cassiciacum: He was living the “Christian life of leisure/reflection” (Christianae vitae otium). This prepared him for his attempt to set up a monastic community in North Africa where he could use his reading in leisurely fashion as an instrument to attain God. He would be living a lifestyle of detached simplicity, emancipated from wants properly regarded as indifferent, which was training in virtue. This was the Christian way to achieve philosophical self-mastery and a freedom from the passions that were thought to disturb the pursuits of the truly educated mind. Although the Stoic parallels are numerous, this monastic life was also consciously modeled on the first apostolic community, living in concord, sharing all property, where the root of all sin was private, self-enclosure that would be banished in this monastic republic (res publica) of God (Op. Mon. 25.32). The Stoic ideal of unspoiled human relationships and loving friendship would be fulfilled in that Christian monastic setting where men seek their own souls and God in concord together (Sol. I.12.20).

But Augustine thereafter recounts in the Confessions how he came to realize that the transition from being a Latin rhetor and a Platonist to being a Christian is not an easy transition at all. It has to be a complete and revolutionary break. The values of his monastic community can only be realized eschatologically in the post-historical city that is the city of God.24 Gradually, Augustine refused to treat the Roman empire as an “evangelical preparation” (praeparatio evangelica) for the evangelical phase of history, coming instead to insist on the homogeneity of redemption history between the Incarnation and the Parousia—the whole period since Christ to the last days—with the consequent lack of significance to sacred history of one or another historical and political regime. He came to see the Christianization of the Roman Empire as accidental to the history of salvation and, furthermore, as reversible: Rome could not be accorded any religious meaning. Indeed, no events after the Incarnation had any sacred significance and, therefore, could not affect the history of salvation. From having originally found scripture unsophisticated and primitive, Augustine came to believe that outside the narrow bounds of the scriptural canon accepted by his contemporary church, no one could have authoritative access to God’s intentions in the past, present, or future of the world’s history (Contra Epistulam Fundamenti V.6; Faust. XXV.1.5.6).

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