Are we all Augustinians? A Review of William Connolly’s “The Augustinian Imperative”

William Connolly is one of the great contemporary scholars in Augustinian engagement—that is, he constantly contests, utilizes, or criticizes the philosophy and theology of Saint Augustine in formation of his own work, themes, or beliefs. In The Augustinian Imperative, Connolly engages Augustine in relationship to modern politics. Although Connolly could be seen as an Augustinian scholar of sorts—many of his earlier, and now later, works often deal with Augustine and his themes, Connolly is not an apologist of Augustine. Rather, he is a critical critic. Here, Connolly looks at the Western infatuation of “good vs. evil” in light of Augustine’s philosophy and theology and how it is mysteriously at the foundation for the oppositional politics we see today.

For Connolly, the Western political project is essentially a secularized notion of Augustine’s identity/difference, dialectical confrontation, and idea of progress. This is born from Augustine’s political theology—Augustine’s attempt to reconcile Biblical and Christian narratives and beliefs with the secular world. Although Augustine’s theology has largely dissipated—Reformed (Calvinist) Christianity comes in a multitude of flavors today, and following the Council of Trent there remains debate as to what extent Augustinian theology was lessened in favor of scholasticism, but, as Augustinian scholar Paula Fredrikson has stated before, “we are heirs to the culture [Augustine] shaped” (that is, modern Western culture and its intellectual and political traditions).

Connolly’s major assertion is that identity and indifference in Western political culture is a derivative outgrowth of the Augustinian imperative. Augustine solidified the doctrine of original sin but was also a defender of human free-will and agency. Augustine struggles in reconciling the notion of an omnipotent and omniscient God with human sin, frailty, and the “problem of evil.” Of course, for Augustine, evil is “no thing.” Book VII of Confessions deals with Augustine’s theodicy in which he articulates the view that evil has no substance, it was not created, and is not part of creation. The material world is good, but evil results from a subversion of the human will. Thus, evil is the product of human willful negation of that which is. According to Connolly, these attempts of protecting God from blame but also trying to reconcile human experience in the world that Augustine’s identity/indifference (or difference) duality comes to the fore. As Connolly argues, the Augustinian worldview requires difference (an anti-thesis, in Hegelian dialectics), and from these differences emerge heresies, innovations, and the heart of the “Western imperative” to reconcile good and evil, progress and destruction, agency and compulsion, lust and love.

It is important to remember that Augustine, as a Christian theologian, accepts the morality of moral realism. That is, independent of human existence, there is an absolute standard of morality. God, of course, is the author of such morality. Thus, the modern political project also inherits a very moralistic foundation—even if we live in a more secularized and pluralistic age. Perhaps this is the reason why liberalism is a deeply moralistic philosophy, for example, we all know there are liberal philosophies that are very strict in how one should act, behave, or even consume in their body. Anyone “different” than they are seen as being, essentially, “heretics” as therefore “evil” (following the more Augustinian language).

Connolly also spends time on how this identity/difference strategy played an important role in creating the Western meta-narrative of the “idea of progress.” Contrary to popular ignorance (and I use that term according to its definition, “lack of knowledge”), religion is not a barrier to progress, in fact, it is from religion (more specifically from theological beliefs) that the entire Western intellectual tradition of historical progress emerged (cf. Karl Lowith, Meaning in History; Robert Nisbet, History of the Idea of Progress) and from which the apocalyptic millenarian philosophies of a final battle between good and evil, where goodness will triumph and inaugurate a new Edenic-like paradise, derive from (cf. Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium). The identity/different strategy is a primitive form of dialectics: Thesis-Antithesis (but what of the synthesis?) that German idealist Georg W.F. Hegel employs in his magnum opus Phenomenology of Spirit. For this reason, Connolly states that “Augustine invokes a Hegelian conception before Hegel” (109).

From Augustine’s philosophy, the West inherited a tradition of deep moralism, identity/difference distinction—which has been for better and for worse. The moral project, Connolly sees, as being divided (again, the identity/difference moniker) to those who see humanity as the source of moral being, and those who see humanity as the actors of the moral being (God, theology, or something apart from humanity is where morality is grounded from). Connolly positions himself in the first camp, along with the likes of individuals such as Nietzsche, Foucault, Montaigne, against the second camp of neo-Augustinians which includes individuals like Augustine, naturally—and others like Kant, Hegel, and Charles Taylor. The end of Connolly’s book deals with his attempt to illustrate how others have attempted to break away from the intrinsic moral order of the world that Augustine and virtually all the West has inherited. He deals with commentary on Nietzsche and Foucault, but with Nietzsche, he concludes that ethical egoism is just a radically revised form of the Augustinian moral imperative—even if it stands in contrast to Augustine. Despite this, Connolly pays his debt to Augustine, noting that he, in some ways, is also an inheritor of the Augustinian tradition, even if he is actively seeking an alternative to it.

In short, those who see man as a moral agent for progress have secularized Augustine’s vision of moralizing goodness. Those who see man as actors for a greater moral law are more faithful Augustinians irrespective of whether they acknowledge Augustine’s God or not. Connolly reveals what the famous historian Jaroslav Pelikan meant when he said, “There has, quite literally, been no century…since the conversion of Augustine in which he has not been a major intellectual, spiritual, and cultural force. For more than a millennium and a half, continuity with the thought of Augustine has been one of the most persistent themes of Western intellectual history.” Connolly’s study of the political peculiarities of the West as case and point.

Those who see moral progress; those who see decline and fall; those who see fatalism and determinism; those who see free will and agency; those who see a world of beauty and wonder; those who see a world of ugliness and “sin”; those who see a world of oppression and propaganda; those who see a world of liberality and compassion; those who are torn between objectification and subjectivity; those who see the tension between lust and love; those who are cultural critics and deconstructionists; all are heirs of the Augustinian spirit in some fashion whether they recognize it or not.


This review is adapted from an Amazon review of the book, 6 April 2015.

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