Image: The Conversion of Saint Augustine, Fra Angelico (c. 1395 – 1455)

By Scott Strgacich

The celebrated American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr called him “the first great ‘realist’ in Western history.”  He spent much of his early life as a Manichean living in carnal sin with a concubine. He was a first-rate philosophical mind, schooled in the wisdom of pagans like Cicero, Virgil and Plotinus. He was then a Christian penitent who one day collapsed in a garden, converted and wrote a prayerful testimony of his sin – the Confessions.

He was Augustine of Hippo, saint, scholar and realist. He has something to tell us.

Augustine’s thought is often associated with that of a theological firebrand or an ancient biblical exegete. He has yet to firmly secure himself among the pantheon of conventional realist thinkers precisely because his species of realism cuts radically against the conventional grain. It is rooted in a moral imperative that, according to Augustine, statesmen and stateswomen cannot ignore. In this shocking, traumatic age of pandemic, economic collapse, racist violence and social breakdown, his is precisely the doctrine that should inform a new realist psyche.

Empire, Chaos and the Church: Augustine’s World

Before exploring Augustine’s realist credentials and impact, we must first outline his world, one ultimately not too dissimilar from our own.

Augustine was a product of a dynamic place in a dynamic time. He was born in the town of Thagaste (in today’s Algeria) in 354 AD. His father was Patricius, a pagan and local town councilor. His mother was a Christian, the venerated Saint Monica. He came from good though not quite noble stock.

He was a member of the so-called curial class, a widespread coterie of landholding gentry and local minor elites who largely comprised the curiae, the governing councils of each town across the provinces of the sprawling Roman Empire. Indeed, each city in the Empire was said to have its own “senate.” These “senators” presided over countless Romes in miniature, idiosyncratic in their own ways but always looking to the Eternal City as an exemplar, a phenomenon termed by historian Peter Heather as “central Romanness.” As the 4th century turned into the 5th, the provinces of the increasingly fractious Empire would eventually drift toward a more “local Romanness.”

In Late Antiquity, Proconsular Africa was a wealthy, energetic province. It was the Egypt of the Western Empire, its grain ships providing a lifeline to the Roman masses. Exquisite villas, churches and basilicas dotted a landscape that straddled an ill-defined line between pastoral agrarianism and urban cosmopolitanism. Newfangled religious sects vied for preeminence in a world in which Roman imperial hegemony was slowly waning. Manichaeism was once such doctrine to which Augustine subscribed.

After a successful career in Rome and Milan as a servant of the imperial court, Augustine returned to his native Africa a changed man. He was now a Christian, not a Manichean. But his Africa had changed too. Rome’s imperial sun was setting and religious sectarianism became the zeitgeist of the day. In his 2013 book Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350 – 550 AD, Peter Brown notes that the great wealth of the region was balkanized between competing churches and sects for whom their “absolute spiritual autonomy” was paramount. As Brown notes, “Every local church was presented as the only place in its locality where the Holy Ghost was to be found.”

Amidst this atmosphere, Augustine was consecrated as Bishop of Hippo Regius, a large town in Algeria, in 395, and proceeded to wage a multi-fronted rhetorical war on Christian schismatics. All the while, Rome’s barbarian enemies closed in along the Empire’s frontiers.

In 410, the city of Rome was sacked by the Visigoths. That same year, the Roman Empire withdrew from Britain. By 418, the Franks and Burgundians had established themselves in Roman Gaul, today’s France. In 429, the Vandals crossed from Spain to Morocco. By 430, they had laid siege to Augustine’s own Hippo Regius. On August 28, Augustine died at the age of 75, his city still invested by Vandal forces.

The Africa of Augustine’s youth was no more. In the twilight days of his burning world, Augustine looked inward. Where most Christians of his era would understandably wonder where the God of Abraham was, Augustine asked how we on Earth can do His work. How might humankind make a better world for ourselves? What would it take?

Augustine’s Moral Realism

Regarding the realist framework, Augustine and his modern compatriots share an inherent skepticism of the notion that human reason can be deployed to effectuate progressive change and perpetual peace. Conventional realist philosophy generally assumes that the strategic calculus imposed on states (and their leaders) by an anarchic world makes this so. This is inevitable and unavoidable. State behavior is inexorably subjected to the tyranny of a global prisoners’ dilemma. This is the way it is, says the modern realist, and it cannot change. Here, however, Augustine sharply diverges.

In his excellent 1992 paper “The Realists and Saint Augustine: Skepticism, Psychology, and Moral Action in International Relations Thought” published in International Studies Quarterly, Michael Loriaux argues that “embedded within Augustine’s psychology – in stark contrast to what one finds in modern realism – is the notion of a good that is capable of endowing statecraft with moral obligation and restraint.” For Loriaux, Augustine’s theology presupposes a solution to realism’s conundrum: that human reason alone cannot lead to peace. His solution is rooted not in that which is reasoned but that which is morally known.

Moral actors, not rational states, are Augustine’s key to understanding how to navigate an anarchic world. How did he arrive at this conclusion? A critical assessment of the foundations of the Roman Empire provided the answer.

In the wake of the Sack of Rome in 410, Augustine wrote his City of God wherein he rebuts the popular charge that the rise of Christianity was weakening the Empire. He critiqued the very source of the order and unity which the Roman state claimed to nurture. The Roman state, he claimed, reaped what it had bloodily sown over centuries. Augustine noted, “How many great wars, how much slaughter and bloodshed, have provided this unity! And though these are past, the end of these miseries has not yet come.”

According to Augustine, the decline of Rome’s imperium was a direct product of the very mechanism that engendered it. Rome was violent, greedy and corrupt. This is a critique of empire that we today would instantly recognize. For Rome, success was measured, in part, by the blood that was spilled to attain it. From Caesar’s brutal conquest of Gaul to Vespasian’s savage response to the Great Jewish Revolt to the atrocious Marcomannic Wars waged by Marcus Aurelius, the last of Rome’s supposedly “Good Emperors,” Roman power was built by a brand of carnage that now engulfed Rome itself.  

For Augustine, Rome was also something else entirely: ungodly. No Christian should dare forget that it was Roman legionaries who mocked and tortured Christ who died as an enemy of the Roman state upon a Roman cross at the behest of a Roman prefect. But wasn’t the Roman Empire of Augustine’s day Christianized? Weren’t its emperors – its augusti – themselves Christian?

While it’s true that Christianity had been the state religion of the Empire since the reign of Theodosius I in the late 4th century, this mattered little to Augustine. The spiritual life and its objectives should guide the Christian in this time of struggle – not just the trappings of the Christian. The Roman state was irredeemably political and worldly, built on an edifice of arrogance and violence. As Peter Brown asserts, the Roman state was, by the beginning of the 5th century, “a more than unusually proud and top-heavy system, deeply wedded to a sense of its own excellence.”

The rationality or reason employed by the state was as irrelevant as the state itself when overawed by a moral architecture that statesmen ignored. Augustine’s world was dominated by amoral or immoral statecraft responsible for the very anarchy it is theoretically tasked by the realist framework to navigate.

What then does this bring to Augustine’s realism? We return to Michael Loriaux for an explanation:

Augustine is as skeptical about our capacity to define a national interest and distinguish between expedient and rash action as he is about the prospects of achieving teleiosis [perfection] in the saeculum [the span of human time]. He invited us to acknowledge the vagaries of the human will as it intercedes between rationality and action. He invites us to question the very motivating power of human rationality. The capacity of the statesman to read “structural constraints” and to devise strategies in response to those constraints falls under the fickle imperium of a multitude of “lusts.” Those lusts vary as do the personalities (mentes) of the statesmen and the habits that they have acquired in the course of their nonreplicable pasts. The relentlessness of Augustine’s skepticism regarding the capacity of humankind to live according to the dictates of reason is such that even smart strategy offers no refuge in a “realist world.”

A “lust” for resources, for hegemonic preeminence, for raw power all defined the Roman imperial twilight. They differ very little from our own “lusts” today. But how does Augustine conceive of his moral formula in a world engulfed by the fires of violence and the laceration of social sinews?

Moral Realism in a World on Fire

All of this talk about “morality” must make any modern realist reader uncomfortable and understandably so. In recent years, “moral” imperatives have been used to justify and prosecute numerous atrocities and strategic follies. The post-Cold War Western mindset has for decades been permeated by a self-enforced obligation to impose upon the world visions of the good that are often myopic, misguided or mendacious in nature. From the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq to the impulsive Western interventions in Libya and Syria, moral dogmatisms have played a crucial – and terrible – role in recent international relations.

Augustine’s take, however, is different. Augustinian realism does not promote moral crusading and would certainly be disdainful of a state that felt empowered to do so – especially through the exercise of violence. In fact, Rome’s imperial war-making to achieve the imposition of a Roman order upon the Mediterranean world was at the core of Augustine’s critique of the global system’s rational hue.

While modern realists kick up manifold storms over moralism’s tyrannical hold over a nominally “rational” world order, little is said outside of Augustine of the atrocities that might be done in the name of that very order. The purely rational state (if such a state even exists) is bound to commit injustices just as any crusader. As Augustine says in City of God, “For even those who prefer that a state of peace should be upset do so not because they hate peace but because they desire a different state of peace that will meet their wishes. Therefore, they do not desire that there shall be no peace, but only that the peace shall be as they choose.”

The violent nature of humanity cannot be tamed by reason alone. For Augustine, moral knowledge is our way out of the anarchy in which nations feud, war and plunder. War is justified only in defense of one’s own country and only if that country preserves the existence of some good within it. What is this good? For Augustine, it is a godly state. For us today, it should be so much more.

This concept should not be unfamiliar to us. During the Vietnam War, thousands of draft-eligible, able-bodied Americans elected to burn their draft cards or go to prison rather than partake in a war they deemed unjust. “My country, right or wrong” gave way to “my country, right or not at all.” That same spirit infects an America battered by plague, ecological catastrophe, economic collapse, state violence, political corruption, and a host of other evils. How has moral knowledge in our politics fallen so clearly by the wayside as to lead to mass death, callousness and apathy? Do we deserve our fate as Rome deserved hers?

As a dying Augustine lay sheltered behind the walls of Hippo Regius in the spring of 430, the Vandal army just outside, he knew this history would repeat.

From a temporal distance, Augustine heard, as Dr. James H. Cone called it, “the cry of Black blood” after the murder of George Floyd. He felt the collective mourning for coronavirus victims. He lived the depravity of a state that did not care about either. Above all, he wanted us – the children of God on Earth – to know that there was a way out.

Scott Strgacich serves as Realist Review’s Editor-in-Chief. He received his B.A. in Political Science from the University of California, Berkeley in 2018. He writes on a variety of topics including U.S. grand strategy, arms control, Iranian foreign policy, classical history and medieval history. He currently works for the U.S. House of Representatives.

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