Four Basic Political Principles in Christian Philosophy

Christian political philosophy has two masters and four basic principles. Hippo and Aquino claim its two masters: Ss. Augustine and Thomas. They, in turn, can lay claim to teaching four basic Christian principles of politics and political rule:

  • First, politics and political rule is natural and good.
  • Second, sin vitiates our nature and therefore makes politics and political rule difficult.
  • Third, the purpose of politics and political rule is to make human beings better.
  • Fourth, politics and political rule is a limited means.

Five hundred years ago, political thinking began abandoning the Third Principle, viz., that politics is supposed to make human beings better. Modern politics and political philosophers now abandon most, if not all, of these principles. Christians should not. Or if they do, Christians should at least be aware that they are rejecting the wisdom of Augustine and Thomas. Ideally, they would know why they reject the basic principles of Christian political philosophy. But let me simply clarify that these four basic principles are foundational aspects of a coherent, consistent, continuous body of political-philosophical thought.

The aforementioned basic principles are contained primarily in two large texts: Augustine’s City of God and Thomas’s Summa Theologiae—at least its so-called “Treatise on Law,” ST I-II qq. 90-108. Augustine writes primarily for Rome’s public men, Christian and pagan, who are versed in the philosophers of Late Antiquity. Thomas clarifies his teaching.

If Augustine needs clarifying, it is because he paints an unflattering picture of political history. His rhetorical purpose is to show that Christian political wisdom has something new and true to teach the world, and to completely undermine the statesmen, philosophers, and historians who point to a simpler golden age where Roman mores were uncorrupted. Political history is painted with the broad brush of the “City of Man” and the “earthly city.” These names even mis-specify human politics too narrowly: while Adam and Eve are its revolutionary liberators and Cain is its founding father, Satan is its influential political theorist. The ancient empires worship various fallen angels. Rome, consecrated to them by Numa Pompilius, is no exception. Human politics is and always will be a beachhead for the City of Hell, and a communion of sinners that is a dark counterfeit of the communion of saints.

Since he paints the Second Principle, viz., that sin vitiates human nature and makes politics difficult, so vividly, Augustine is often said to reject the First Principle, viz., that politics is natural and good. Three proof-texts often surface to demonstrate that Augustine thinks politics properly speaking—and not just politics ‘as we know it’—is the result of sin and evil. Two are in Book 4: Augustine approves of the pirate who dares to tell Alexander, ‘justice removed, what is a kingdom but a large band of robbers’; and Augustine says if men were peaceful and just, ‘there would be as many kingdoms among nations as houses in a large city.’ The supposed linchpin, often cited, is in Book 19, where God gives Adam dominion only over the lower animals.

The first two proof-texts are easily dealt with. First, by insisting that kingdoms require real justice, Augustine is preparing his critique of Scipio’s definition of the commonwealth in Cicero’s Republic, which requires only an agreement vis-à-vis what is just. Augustine will argue that Christians can pierce the veils of glory and lust for power, see clearly what is truly just, and rule commonwealths where true justice is loved. In ST I-II q. 90, Thomas will later call this, following Aristotle’s direction—but daring to tread where Aristotle does not ultimately go—the ‘common good’ towards which our natural reason can guide the lawmaker. Politics is natural in the sense that the virtues are natural. Second, Augustine does not say that every household would be a kingdom, but that a sinless world would not have great empires but thousands of small kingdoms. This is reaffirmed in On the Free Choice of the Will where Augustine argues that, were all men just and peaceful, they could trust one another to choose their own leaders. Rulers should make human beings better so that they are worthy of democracy, like the Israelites who, as Thomas reminds us in ST I-II q.105, democratically chose the seventy-two elders ‘from among the people’ in the ‘mixed regime’ of Moses.

In ST I-II q. 96, Thomas clarifies that being ‘subject to law,’ can mean being subject to coercion or ruled by a higher law. We might understand the ‘dominion’ Augustine discusses in The City of God, Book 19, in this light. God does not intend anyone to be subject to coercive domination, since he intends everyone to be subject to the higher law. Neither Augustine nor Thomas think that coercive rule in the usual sense of the master-slave relationship is natural, although rational political rule is.

Like Augustine, Thomas is well aware that human beings universally suffer the effects of sin, and are born with concupiscible and irascible aspects. There may be entire societies that are disordered, Thomas concedes in ST I-II q. 94, like the Gauls whom Caesar claimed approved of theft. But this is not what Thomas means by nature, or the natural law that he writes in ST I-II q. 90 that is inextinguishable in us.

Both the First and the Second Principle are now clearer. In a world of perfect, ‘unfallen’ human beings, government would be rationally oriented towards the common good. The sinless would have the natural law in their hearts. Sin is the source of all political problems.

Now let us turn to what Thomas says the purpose of law is in ST I-II q. 92, viz., ‘to make men good.’ This is the promise that Augustine sees in the Christian statesman; Book 11 underlines the difference between the rational values of things and their use-value. The Christian statesman is able to see that the slave has an inestimably higher value in the eyes of God—in the rational order of the cosmos—than a jewel, even if the jewel has a higher price, use-value, and is coveted more than the slave. To become good, for Augustine, is to be converted away from the lust for mastery and the desire for glory—which can only inspire counterfeit virtues—and to see things as they really are. Pride makes us objectify persons and objects according to our own purposes for them; humility allows us to see things as they really are in their nature, according to God’s purpose. Human nature is such that God created the race through a single individual, Augustine argues in Book 12, so it would be obvious that we are made to live in gregarious concord with one another, not as slaves to our lust. To the extent that the City of God is ascendant in human affairs, the cities of the world will be ruled by the one source of lasting peace.

Of course, the wounds of sin cannot be healed completely by politics. We also learn in Book 11 that the two cities will be admixed forever in this present world. Thomas turns to Augustine’s On the Free Choice of the Will to puts a sharper point on the limits of political rule in ST I-II q. 96, where he proposes that human beings can only be led gradually to virtue. The law can lead human beings to every virtue, but cannot ordain all the acts of the virtues. This is not simply for practical reasons, either; one can be a tyrant not only by commanding one’s subjects do to evil, but by overstepping the limits of one’s authority. Human law, Thomas argues in ST I-II q. 98, is ordered towards making human beings better so that there can be temporal peace. To imagine that laws can lead human beings to the end of their eternal happiness is to attempt to do with coercive power what can only be done with grace. As Thomas remarks, importantly, on another occasion:

Man is not ordained to the body politic, according to all that he is and has; and so it does not follow that every action of his acquires merit or demerit in relation to the body politic. But all that man is, and can, and has, must be referred to God: and therefore every action of man, whether good or bad, acquires merit or demerit in the sight of God, as far as the action itself is concerned. (ST I-IIae, q.21 a.3 ad3)

Both the Third and Fourth Principles are now clearer. A politics of the common good consists in making each member of the political community more virtuous. However, both the means by which and the ends for which the political ruler can promote the common good are limited.

Christian political philosophy is more focused on the common good than the kind of regimes that should be devised; thus, Thomas wrote a commentary on the first three books of Aristotle’s Politics but not the last five. Two important exceptions come to mind. First, the theology of human nature and the Fall provide Augustine and Thomas additional arguments against slave-mastery as a legitimate mode of political rule, beyond any of those found in Aristotle. Second, Augustine and Thomas seem to think that the more the common good is achieved, the more fitted citizens will be for ruling and being ruled in turn democratically, in the context of a mixed regime with aristocratic and kingly elements.

How we think about politics today is complicated by the rush to consider the proper spheres of Church and family, as the exigencies of our time require. The four basic principles simplify the Christian political philosophy of the proper sphere of the “state,” or the temporal power, so that we neither exaggerate nor denigrate the sphere in which it ought to operate.

Liberal thought, now in its second ascendancy, is originally premised on a rejection of the Third Principle, viz. that politics ought to make men better. Liberals suspect that this premise leads to irreconcilable conflicts, and makes violence inevitable. Christians traditionally suspect the opposite: if we do not aspire together to our better natures, we allow men to be wolves.

Originally posted at: The Josias

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