Philosophy Theology

Augustine and the Saeculum

Beyond philosophical anthropology and philosophical theology, St. Augustine was a political philosopher and his political thoughts have been an interest of many political theorists for some time, especially in the 20th century.  Augustine’s political thoughts, as contained primarily in Book XIX of City of God (but elsewhere as well within City of God), and also his letters (especially to the Roman general Count Boniface), influenced (rightly or wrongly) the political treatises of the Renaissance, especially Dante’s De Monarchia and Marsilius of Padua’s Defensor Pacis.  More recently, Augustine’s realism was a major influence upon Reinhold Neibuhr, and Augustine’s political theory has experienced a renaissance in scholarship ever since the publication of Robert Markus’s Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St. Augustine.

Augustine’s political philosophy carries the labels “realist” and “pluralist” to it.  It is realist in the sense that Augustine is not a utopian or a progressive – he understands the realm of the political as basically limited and flawed, prone to injustice, conquest, and tyranny.  His political philosophy is considered pluralist because Augustine speaks of the mixed city, the struggle between the civitas terrena and the civitas Dei, the struggle between justice and injustice, and the general differences among a society’s citizenry and their loves.  At its heart, Augustine’s political project is the attempt to navigate this “pessimistic” reality of the political, and how to best achieve and maintain a sensible and reasonable order to society that allows the greatest allowance of the citizens of the civitas terrena to pursue their loves without conquering others.

The foundation of Augustine’s political philosophy rests on what is called “the Saeculum.”  The Saeculum is, ironically, the source of eventual secular political theory – especially from Dante and Marsilius, who interpreted the city of man as having the authorial responsibility of maintaining the peace and welfare of its citizens over and against the Church, which was primarily concerned with the spiritual health of people.  For Augustine, the Saeculum – which is Latin “for of the age” – reflects his own pluralistic metaphysics and ontology, it is the not only the time of the age in which we live, it is also the plane of pluralistic reality, a mixture in other words: saints and sinners, the just and unjust, the philosopher kings and the political tyrants, of empires and republics, of those seeking life and those aiming to destroy and conquer. Augustine takes the Saeculum as the basis for the foundation of his political thought and informs his political realism.  He does not start with an ideal, he works from what he observes and knows from history.

In this Saeculum of irredeemably mixed pluralism, the next point of reference is how do we have a society that bests maintains a “compromise of wills to attain the things which are helpful to this life” (19.17) and abide by Augustine’s two principles of political order: “that a man, in the first place, injure no one, and, in the second, do good to everyone he can reach” (19.14)?  As Augustine lays out in the City of God, the two cities are mixed together in this plane of history called the saeculum and will remain so until the end of days (14.28).  The City of Man, of course, is defined by its love of self and ethos of domination.  The City of God, by contrast, is defined by its want for compromise, peace, and love of others and worship of God.  This dialectic plays itself out in history with people being part of either camp based on their loves.

For Augustine, as Professor Linda Raeder wrote in her article “Augustine and the Case for Limited Government,” political authority and power should be limited on the basis that the greater the power of political authority the greater the tendency toward injustice, conquest, and vain glory seeking such political entities tend to engage in.  The result of this injustice, conquest, and glory seeking behavior is the destruction of small communities, the ablation of peoples and their loves and concerns in life, and the push toward tyranny.  Augustine’s political philosophy aims at compromise, rightful order and devolution of political authority and power, and codifies the principle of non-harm and communal justice – these are the principles by which Augustine believes we can limit the tendency of libido dominandi (lust for domination).

For Augustine, his political theory cannot be separated from his anthropology.  According to Augustine, happiness and wisdom is what humanity seeks, and no government can provide the happiness and wisdom that we all desire.  Human flourishing is the result on ontological happiness, which is principally the result one’s reason coming to understand oneself and the coming into communion with the source of all that which humans desire.  It is very neo-Platonic with a Christianized theological bent to it.

Contra to Hobbes and Locke, Augustine rejects outright the view that power and state orthodoxy (the social contract) are the sources of flourishing and happiness.  This is because Augustine – and the broader Augustinian tradition in general – rejects the view that happiness and flourishing is principally found in things external to humans.  As St. Thomas Aquinas explained in the second volume of the Summa Theologica when discussing the nature of happiness, “because man is ordained to happiness through principles that are in him; since he is ordained thereto naturally. Now the four goods mentioned above are due rather to external causes, and in most cases to fortune; for which reason they are called goods of fortune. Therefore it is evident that happiness nowise consists in the foregoing.”  Much like with Plato and Plotinus, the sources of happiness are within us.  Thus, political happiness is not to be found in a State or its ambitions.

If happiness is to be found in things external to humanity, than this desire can never be satisfied.  If happiness is something internal and natural to us, then it is dependent upon us to discover that happiness.  It necessarily follows that no State, political movement, or amount of “wealth” can produce the happiness that humans naturally seek.  This is Augustine’s foundation for his political theory: (1) we live in a mixed world that is constantly in tension and not homogenized (the Saeculum), (2) that humans have a natural end and that this end is happiness, (3) political authority principally seeks to erase tension by destroying the forces that are in tension to it and its desires (political libido dominandi), and (4) that political authority cannot produce the flourishing and happiness that humans seek.  (Only humans are capable of this.)

As a result, Augustine argues that civil freedom is to be the highest value in civil society because “liberty leaves the citizen free to know his higher end, an end that includes virtues and goals that enable the natural virtues to work without the pride that would corrupt their integrity.”  Again, Augustine’s defense of limited State power and advocacy for civil liberty rests upon his notion of human nature and who is the source and understanding of happiness (the self, not the State or State law).

But Augustine is no anarchist or minarchist.  Instead, the political is real and rooted in society – and it does provide many benefits.  Though most of these benefits are tangible: welfare, order, and (imperfect) justice, these tangible benefits of the political do allow for humans to seek happiness when they are “held in check.”

Augustine, then, rejects anarchism for the same reason that Aristotle rejects political minimalism – a State that is too small is incapable of dispensing the necessary job of the civitas terrena, principally the welfare of its citizens and maintaining order through law.  These responsibilities of the political do not, in of themselves, produce happiness, but they provide an orderly outlet for citizens to be able to pursue either cupiditas (love of greed and material desires) and caritas (love of God and Logos).  Augustine, ironically, is a strong defender of cupiditas because of his account of sin – human sin, which is “misdirected desire” (or misdirected attempts at achieving love and happiness) characterizes humanity in the post-Fall world, therefore sinful humans pursuing cupiditas is a norm and we cannot get around this.  (Unlike Puritanism, Augustine does not see “the spread of the faith” entailing a universalizing of “goodness” however that is conceived.)  So long as the love of greed is not disintegrating society through too much material inequality (hence Augustine’s view that politics serves the interest of social justice and human welfare), or leading to bodily abuse, cupiditas is permitted in the political order because that’s just how the world is.  Now, certain things are to be “outlawed” by the force of law – but law, then, is primarily corrective and reactive, rather than positivistic and shaping.  Law reacts to violation and “corrects” for the outcomes violated, it does not shape and mold humans to their end because only human reason can do that.  Law equally cannot do this because Augustine does not see humans as “man-machines” with blank slates waiting to be filled.

Because the concept of the political in Augustine serves the interest of welfare, order, and (imperfect) justice, political order has a low good to it – a low good that, even in the twisted realm of the Roman Empire (his view), should nevertheless be defended.  This is not a contradiction in Augustine’s thought as some charge.  It is, instead, a reflection of his “pessimistic” realism.

In his letters to the Roman general Count Boniface, Augustine charges Boniface with, in effect, dereliction of duty and responsibility.  However imperfect the Roman Empire is, and was, the Roman Empire still produces and provides tangible benefits to society that Pagan and Christian alike benefit from: order, welfare, and some sense of justice (though it is imperfect).  The Barbarians (the Vandals) invading Rome, on the other hand, represent chaos and disorder, destruction, and injustice writ large.  As Augustine writes to Boniface, “the barbarians to be so bold, to encroach so far, to destroy and plunder so much, and to turn into deserts such vast regions once densely peopled?”  Boniface’s lack of action, a dereliction of duty, has led to the citizens of the empire, whom Boniface is supposed to protect, to suffer the most.  (One cannot pursue wisdom and happiness when they are dead or have been forced to flee their homes.)

Augustine informs Boniface in another letter that his responsibility as Roman general and master of the soldiers is akin to a pastoral shepherd – just from within the sphere of the civil and political.  “there remains upon you the yet greater duty of seeing not only that those be punished with wholesome severity who dare to prate more openly their declaration of that error, most dangerously hostile to the Christian name, but also that with pastoral vigilance, on behalf of the weaker and simpler sheep of the Lord.”  Thus, the task of the general, in defending the civil, is akin to the pastor of a church – the shepherding protection that the civil order grants and provides allows citizens, the sheep, to seek the source of their desire for wisdom and happiness.

The outcome of Augustine’s political philosophy (really political anthropology) is as followed: (1) we live in a political world of mixed pluralism and difference, we cannot get away from this and the attempt to curb difference results in tyranny (the purging of difference to maintain homogeneity which, if supposedly achieved, would end all internal societal conflict), (2) since humans desire happiness and happiness is a natural state of being and to be found in reason’s understanding of one’s own desire, the State cannot provide the happiness that humanity seeks – no amount of State power can provide for humanity’s happiness (incidentally this means that human nature is a barrier against State power, if one believes in human nature that is), (3) despite the imperfections of the realm of the political, the realm of the political (the civitas terrena) provides indispensable services: primarily welfare, justice, and law and order, which helps allow humans to pursue their loves and desire for happiness in relative peace and stability, (4) because of what the political provides, it is worth defending (for even imperfect order and justice is better than no order and no justice), (5) politics is primarily concerned with compromise and cooperation between the plurality of difference forces and peoples in society, not the conquest of one over the other, and (6) this tug-of-war between compromise and conquest, between a defense of pluralism and desire to exterminate plurality on the belief that universalization will bring lasting peace and prosperity, is the fundamental nature of politics and will remain the fundamental nature of politics until the end of time (Augustine didn’t have a concept of the “end of history” or belief that tyranny’s universalizing tendency would “win”).

Thus, Augustine’s political anthropology and political philosophy is characterized by his defenders as one of pluralistic realism.  Augustine’s detractors, on the other hand, charge him with maintaining injustice with a faux advocacy for social justice and that imperfect political order is still worth defending because of the imperfect benefits that it provides.  Others have characterized Augustine’s political theory as “pessimism.”  Furthermore, Augustine’s political legacy is hotly contested, with many viewing him, paradoxically, as one of the founding fathers of secular political theory, the father of limited government, and an important defender and shaper of “the Western ideals of freedom and progress and social justice.”

One of the most important elements to Augustine’s political philosophy was the development of what is remembered as subsidiarity.  Subsidiarity is the principal that devolves political responsibility away from the central State and back to the local level.  This is enshrined as official Catholic political theory and is defined as, “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to co- ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.”  Likewise, from Augustine, political subsidiarity “is opposed to all forms of collectivism. It sets limits for state intervention. It aims at harmonizing the relationships between individuals and societies.”  Finding the balance, or harmonizing relationship between individuals and society, is the impetus of Augustine’s political philosophy.  Politics is not the push for utopia, domination, or other such fantasies which permit the pursuit of libido dominadi, politics is about compromise, finding balance between individuals and society, delegating political power and responsibility away from central authorities back to local authorities, dispensing justice (however imperfect), and maintaining civil order so to allow the citizens to grow into their loves.  Happiness cannot come from the State, only from within the person.


Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of Finding ArcadiaThe Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.


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