Reflections on Augustine's Spirituality

Donald X. Burt, OSA

Friendship and Society:
Introduction to Augustine's Practical Philosophy


Chapter 8

A. Coping with Babylon
B. The Nature and Limits of Civil Law
C. Dealing with the Imperfect State
D. The Moral Response to Violence
    1. Introduction
    2. The Causes of Violence
    3. The Morality of Violent Acts
    4. Killing Humans: General Principles



A. Introduction: Coping with Babylon

In the previous chapter we have argued that Augustine considered the state to be a good society, one which was needed by human beings during their life on earth. When driven by the force of friendly love with God and neighbor, it could even be a prophetic image of what life in the city of God would be, that heavenly Jerusalem in which God is the only king and which humans and angels are united in a true unity of heart [concordia]. This vision of the best state is a hope-filled dream for both citizen and ruler, a goal worthy of pursuit; but unfortunately the reality of political society is always something less. Though good people might "Dream of Jerusalem", their day by day life is spent "Coping with Babylon" ... dealing with the imperfections in themselves and others which cause the societies they form to be likewise imperfect. As Augustine remarked one day, it truly would be a wonderful world if ...

... the rule and government of human affairs were in the hands of the wise and those who realized that they were subject to God. But, since this is not now the case, we must spend our days patiently and meekly enduring government which rules through force.1

It is important to stress that the misuses of political power that sometimes occur cannot be blamed on the nature of the state, anymore than abuse of one's spouse or one's child can be blamed on the nature of the family. The perversions of those in power would not exist if there were no perversions in the people themselves, the individual human beings who are the elements and, as it were the seeds of the state.2 Individual citizens are related to the state something like a letter is related to a word. They are integral parts of the whole and their defects are causative of the imperfections of the whole. The greed of a political society for more and more wealth through war and deception is merely the greed of individuals writ large," those few who have the power of wealth but who are yet haunted by fear, who are heavy with care, never secure, always restless, breathless from endless quarrels with enemies, adding possessions beyond measure as they increase the mountain of anxiety that distresses them.3

In the previous chapter we have argued that even if the state were an earthly Jerusalem composed only of God-centered saints some minimal organizing law would have been necessary to bring order to the day by day activity of the complex society. In the imperfect "Babylon" that is the reality of political life there is a need for directive and coercive law. Humans weakened in intellect and will now need law as a guide for the perplexed and as a restraint for the malicious. Although it may be true that some still are motivated to obey out of love, the majority are moved only by fear. Now peace in society can be insured only through punishment of the criminal within and war against attack from without.4

Considering the imperfections of the citizens and leaders of every political society, it is only to be expected that some legislation will be bad law, that some punishment will go too far, that some wars waged will be unjust. As a result, there are many questions for a person trying to lead a virtuous life. How should one act when constrained by bad laws? How far can one go in protecting oneself and society against the violent attacks of others? When is punishment for a crime warranted and when does it go too far? What rules should observed in waging war? How should one dedicated to the ideals of the heavenly Jerusalem live in a political society infected with the ideals of Babylon? These are the questions to be considered in this chapter and the chapters that follow. We begin with an examination of the nature and limits of civil law.


B. The Nature and Limits of Civil Law

A widely accepted definition of law is as follows: Law is a reasonable command promulgated by one in authority for the common good. Law is said to be a command to differentiate it from a mere voiced opinion or suggestion regarding how one should act in a particular circumstance. Law involves a true imposition of will by the one who makes the law upon the one who is expected to obey, such that (if the law is disobeyed) one may legitimately describe the subject as a "law-breaker" and therefore liable to be punished. Such power to impose one's will implies a superiority of ruler over ruled which is the basis for a claim of an authority over the ruled. To say that the law must be reasonable implies (1) that it does not violate any higher law; (2) that it is a necessary or useful means of serving the common good; (3) that one bound by the law is able to observe it and the one who creates the law is able to enforce it.

Since one cannot be bound by a law that is unknown, the law must be adequately promulgated to those who are to be bound by it. Finally, the law must serve the common good of the society. For the political society this would include both the temporal peace and the prosperity of its citizens. As we shall see, this limitation of the state to purely temporal affairs (leaving to the church matters dealing with eternal salvation) was not as firmly observed in Augustine's day as it is now in the age of the secular state.5

Each of the aspects of the definition of law impose restrictions on its extent, but added to these is the requirement that any temporal law must be in accord with eternal law, the law whereby God commands that the order of the universe be preserved. As applied to the human race, eternal law requires that humans act in accord with their nature and with their particular position and responsibilities in life, for example as parents, spouses, employees, and members of various societies.6

A further restriction on civil law is that it must be enacted by one with the authority to do so. Even though a supposed law commands a great and good action, it is not a law if the one who gives the command has no authority to do so. Such authority must ultimately come from God since God is the only person who is by nature superior to human beings. Augustine agreed completely with the sentiment expressed by St. Paul:

There is no authority except from God, and those authorities who exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists these authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment."7

Augustine did not believe in any "divine right" of kings, but he did believe that divine power was reflected in every legitimate exercise of civil rule. It is for this reason that one who has authority in the state has the right to

... command something which neither he nor anyone else has ever commanded before. Obedience to such authority is not against the common interest, but disobedience would be. In human society there is general agreement that kings should be obeyed [and] that in the government of human society the lesser authority must be subject to the greater.8


C. Dealing with the Imperfect State

Unfortunately, not every political society will be a comfortable home for those dedicated to the ideals of the city of God. Though dreaming and desiring the peace of the heavenly Jerusalem, good people are sometimes called upon to live in political societies dominated by the thirst for power and vices of an earthy Babylon. There will be good and bad states and while hoping for the best the virtuous person must sometimes put up with the worst. The best situation would be where the political society contains citizens and rulers who have the true faith, who lead a virtuous life based on that faith, and where the leaders have the practical art of governing.9 Augustine had some doubts about whether such a ideal state could ever exist, given the defects in human beings, and therefore something less is the best that can realistically be hoped for. This "less good but not too bad" state is one in which the leaders have some skill in governing and who do live a somewhat noble life but for less than virtuous reasons. They are concerned about living well and doing well and governing well not so much out of love for God or neighbor as out of love for a good reputation. Augustine found examples of these "noble pagan politicians" in the best days of the Roman Empire when the emperors, though not believing in God and not totally committed to basic principles of morality, at least tried to lead somewhat decent lives and tried to rule justly for the sake of their own personal glory. It would of course have been better if their nobility of rule was prompted by love of God and neighbor rather than concern about how history would remember them, but at least their rule was enlightened. Such limited goodness was certainly far better than those very worst of states (exemplified historically in the city of Cain) where rulers and ruled alike were motivated by self-interest, protecting themselves at all costs and dominating those who were weaker. Still, even in these worst case scenarios, assuming that citizens and rulers had at least enough unity of purpose to justify calling their gathering a "society," such true authority as existed had its source in God.10

There is no question that life is difficult for a virtuous person living in the domain of an evil ruler, but the vices of the ruler do not excuse the subject from obeying the law of the land as long as it does not violate the law of God.11 Augustine believed that a christian could not justify disobedience to the law because the ruler was not a saint. Christians should give obedience even to the worst of earthly rulers because in their obedience they are really obeying God who (in his Providence) determines that certain individuals should rule and others should be subject. Even in a tyrannical state the obligations to pay taxes and show some respect for public authority are just. However, this respect for the ruler does not mean that a believer should give the ruler control over their belief in God.12

Augustine cites the example of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to show how good people should act if commanded to act against their conscience. When King Nebuchadnezzar ordered the three men to offer sacrifice to his idols, they responded by passive resistance. Refusing to obey the law, they submitted themselves quietly to the penalty, neither offering violent resistance to the law or rebelling against the lawgiver. They thus demonstrated the good that can come out of bad laws, laws which favored untruth over truth. Through such oppressive laws "staunch believers are tested and faithful champions are crowned."13

Another example Augustine offers is that of the Christian soldiers who served the wicked emperor Julian. They refused his commands to offer incense to the pagan gods, but at the same time when commanded to march against this or that enemy of the state, they obeyed immediately. They did not revolt because the emperor was pagan but neither did they bow to his orders to act against the true God. They obeyed in other matters because Julian's pagan belief did not make him any less a ruler and as such one who participated in the divine authority to rule his subjects for the sake of the common good.14

Deane is correct in his observation that Augustine favored passive resistance to bad rulers over violent revolution. After an unfortunate situation in which his own parishioners participated in the lynching of an unpopular public official, Augustine showed his abhorrence of such mob violence in his harsh words to the participants. He told them:

Judges exist who have the power to deal with evil men. When you as an ordinary person take the law into your own hands, you are substituting one evil for another. By venting your rage against the violent, you join them in their violence. It is no excuse to say that you were only a passive bystander if you could have controlled those who did participate but did nothing to stop them.15

Augustine's resistance to violent response against bad rulers was based on a number of reasons. First, such violence showed too much attachment to this life.16 Secondly, internal unrest is the worst affliction of society. Once a mob is unleashed there is no holding them back. It is better by far to preserve some semblance of peace while suffering cruel rule and unjust punishment rather than to "unleash the hounds" and foment anarchy. Finally, even if it is successful, a revolution is a short-term solution. This life is but a "mist that passes."17 The real concentration of the Christian should be on the life that is to come. One should not let passing events disturb one's spiritual quest for the eternal home. Even the worst of states is not forever. Thus, it is more sensible to take a stance of "social quietism," refusing to obey only those laws which command the immoral. Time will soon do away with all bad rulers or, at least, will release subjects from their tyranny. As Augustine once remarked:

As far as this life of mortals is concerned, a life which is spent and finished in a few days, what does it matter under whose government a dying human lives as long as those who govern do not command impiety and iniquity?18

A good law is a blessing because it can correct the malicious but even the worst law and most perverse ruler cannot destroy our freedom to choose God.19 A civil ruler cannot control our thoughts and thus though we are enslaved by state power, we need not fear that they can control our eternal destiny. To enslave the body is one thing; to enslave the soul is quite another.20 Therefore, all the evils imposed on the good person by unjust rulers are but a test of their virtue. As Augustine observes:

The good person, even though a slave, is truly free. The evil person who is in charge is still a slave, a slave not to some king but even more disastrously to the many vices infecting the soul.21

D. The Moral Response to Violence

1. Introduction

Violence is a fact of human history and it must be considered by any political theory that claims to be realistic. Since Eden every age has been tinged with violence. Humans die in wars. Criminals do deadly deeds that seem to cry out for severe punishment, even death. Terrorists use random destruction to promote a cause. Innocents perish at the hands of unjust aggressors. It seems that in every age the truth expressed by Augustine to a friend remains true: "We exist in peace only through the sworn oaths of barbarians."22

Why peace this side of death is so hard to achieve is because of the "cracks" in each individual. At one and the same time we humans desire to be more than we can be while being tempted to be less than we are. We are dusty angels, looking to the heavens as we fight for the goods of this earth. We want everything and are jealous of those who have anything that is not ours. As Augustine says:

Each individual in this earthly community is driven by his passion to pursue his self-interest. Unfortunately, there are not enough existing goods to satisfy everyone completely (and) as a result this earthly city suffers a chronic condition of war in which those who win oppress those who lose.23

As a result:

Because of the instability found in every human, no nation as ever been so safe as to do away with all fear of hostile attacks on its life.24

The practical problem is not how to do away with all threat of violence (because that is impossible), but how to deal with violence when it occurs. What methods to control violence are both realistic and consistent with moral principle? How can we humans live a rational (noble) life in a violent world? Must we stay passive in the face of every attack on our rights or the rights of those we care about? Indeed, if I am in a position of authority, am I morally at fault if I do not respond to violent attacks on those who are my responsibility? Specifically, how far may a state go in protecting itself from alien nations and alienated citizens? How far does the moral law allow one to go in preserving order?

2. The Causes of Violence

In order to deal with violence in society one must first reach some conclusion about its causes. There are at least three possible explanations. The first maintains that violent actions derive their energy from human nature itself. Humans are by nature aggressive animals and the only way to control their violent tendencies is by confinement and control. Like wild animals, humans must be caged by laws, if not by bars, to protect them from themselves and others. Humans cannot be changed, only controlled. A second approach argues that human action, good or bad is completely determined by environment. Given the right conditions, any one of us can be made into peaceful creatures. In the wrong environment even a saint can be turned into a violent beast. Violence, therefore, can be cured. The only problem is to find and create the environment that will cure it.

A final opinion believes that we are neither made to be violent by our nature nor are we predetermined by our environment to be aggressive. Humans are free. Granted that in some cases humans are driven by uncontrollable compulsions and granted that it is often extremely difficult to overcome the wounds inflicted by a poor environment, most humans and in most cases become what they are because they choose to be that way. Thus, it is at least theoretically possible to convince humans that they should freely choose to reject all violence. The cure for violence is to appeal to the rational free nature of human beings and, at least in some cases, this approach will work.25

Augustine's view on the primary cause of human violence comes closest to this third view, but he would disagree with those who claim that any human being can make themselves to be good without any outside help from divine grace. Certainly humans have the power of free choice but it is a wounded power. In ordinary matters humans are responsible for their history. They choose to be what they are and to do what they do. However they also are flawed and their flaws often result in disorderly choice and perverse action.

This disorder in human choice can manifest itself in any of three ways. First, it sometimes causes humans to prefer earthly things to higher values. Humans are caught in the middle of reality. They are less than God but are better than the rest of creation. They tend by nature to need both God and the everyday world of material goods. An unwounded humanity would have been able resolve these conflicting needs, but in their wounded state humans often find themselves at odds with themselves.

The second expression of disordered choice has to do with method. We humans have become so self-centered that now we tend to choose even truly good things in selfish ways. Our selfish attitudes endanger even our most noble actions. When we fall in love with another human we must strain to truly make our love dedicated to the loved one and not to ourselves. When we enjoy the good things of this life (for example earthly life itself), we find it difficult to avoid making them the "end all and be all" of our existence. Sometimes we reach for the things we enjoy with no thought of the needs of others. We are choosing true goods but in a selfish way.

Finally, disordered choice may be found sometimes in its selection of means for acquiring true goods. For example, it is certainly good to preserve one's life, but this does not justify any and all means to that end. I may not save myself by committing an injustice against another human. I may not save my life by blaspheming God. A just war may become immoral because of the way in which it is waged. Even our most noble purpose in doing something will not justify the perverse way in which we do it.

Augustine was convinced that disordered choice was the chief cause of violence in this life. Wounded will and darkened intellect are the culprits, not environment and not human nature. Neither king nor citizen, neither pope nor peasant, is exempt from these flaws. All humans share a common disability and without the grace of God all would succumb to the sometimes evil that it suggests. Perhaps remembering his own wild and confused youth, Augustine became convinced that the tendency towards abject stupidity and uncontrolled passion is found in every one of us. Every one of us is born in ignorance and as soon as we become conscious all sorts of crazy desires begin to surface. As Augustine somberly observes, without God's grace we would try every evil ever recorded in human history and probably invent a few of our own along the way.26

3. The Morality of Violent Acts

The disorder that causes the immorality of human actions can come from three possible sources:

(1) the act itself;

(2) the lack of authority to perform the act in this particular circumstance;.

(3) the intention and/or attitude of the person doing the action.27

Each of these deserves some further explanation.

First of all, an act may be immoral because it is in conflict with the order of the universe by its very nature. Thus, blasphemy contradicts the factual subordination of the creature to the Creator. It is impossible for the Creator to be subordinate to the creature, but blasphemy (the cursing of God) by its very nature asserts such subordination. It must therefore be always and everywhere forbidden. Even God could not make it to be moral. In like manner, adultery must be always immoral because its practice denies the existence of the contract that its definition asserts. No authorization divine or human, no noble intention, no set of circumstances can make blasphemy or adultery or other "naturally disordered acts" to be morally good. Perhaps they can be understood and even forgiven, but they can never be justified.

A second source of immorality in a human act is the lack of proper authority to perform the act in a particular case. For example, taking the goods of another becomes stealing only when it is against the reasonable will of the owner. A morally indifferent medical procedure can become immoral if done without the consent of a competent patient. Unlike those acts which are disordered by nature, the disorder of these acts can be remedied. If proper authorization is present, the taking of the goods of another ceases to be evil. If appropriate patient consent is present, a medical procedure can become an expression of professional virtue.

The third cause of immorality in the human act is in the intention and/or attitude of the person performing the act. A bad intention can vitiate even the most noble action. There is no merit in "doing" good if we are choosing badly, if we are loving in a disordered way. Augustine makes this point clearly when he writes against Faustus:

Injustice occurs in every case where a person loves as a goal something which should be desired only as means to an end, or seeks for the sake of something else things which ought to be loved for themselves. By such disordered desire humans disturb the natural order which the eternal law requires all of us to respect.28

It is important to have a clear understanding of the meaning of violence before trying to apply moral principles to particular violent actions. Two different kinds of violence can be distinguished. A violent act can be described as any act which contravenes the rights of another. It can also be described as an act which causes injury to the life, property or person of a human being, oneself or others. In Augustine's moral system, it is evident that the first type of violent actions (those which violate rights) are always immoral. They are out of order precisely because they are contrary to fact. Reality proclaims that rights exist; the unjust action pretends that they do not. In choosing injustice the agent is guilty of disordered love, effectively desiring a reordering of fact whereby the victim of the injustice becomes subordinate to the perpetrator.

The moral status of violence which simply inflicts "injury" on another is not as clear. The word "injury" covers a multitude of hurts. Any lessening of a good contributing to human flourishing falls under the concept. A diminishing of life or health or freedom is always injurious to the one who suffers the loss even when it is voluntarily inflicted. It seems unreasonable to assert that such "injuring" is either always moral or always immoral. Intuitively it is more sensible to maintain that some cases of injuring are moral and that other cases are not and therefore that some "violent" actions are justified and others are not. Having granted this, the problem becomes to identify the norm which will differentiate between the two.

For Augustine the norm is the general norm of morality discussed in the chapter on ethics, namely: An act is morally good if it is an act of ordered love: that is, if it is a choice which fosters the order of the universe. An act that is "violent" because it causes injury will be immoral if it is disordered in any one of the three ways specified by Augustine in his debate with Faustus, that is:

1. if it is disordered by its very nature;

2. if it is done without proper authority;

3. if it is done with bad intention.

Though no act that causes injury will be immoral in and of itself, any injurious act can become immoral if it is done without proper authority of with bad intention. Spanking a child causes pain but it is not for that reason immoral. It becomes immoral if the one who disciplines has no authority to do so or does it with an improper attitude or in an immoderate way. Though Augustine lamented mightily about the beatings he received during his early school years, he did not question the authority of his teachers to discipline their students. He complained only about their hypocrisy in punishing the young for the very same games that they (the teachers) played as adults. The disorder in their acts came not from a lack of right but from a lack of right attitude. The imposition of unwanted discipline is not disorderly in itself; it becomes so from the disordered intention and attitude of those who impose it. Indeed, Augustine came to realize that a bit of discipline is good for most human beings, though most of us are unwilling to accept it when it comes to us. Those charged with the care of others must be ready to punish as well as reward. It could even be a virtuous act for a father to give a beating to his son if it is truly necessary for the son's own good.29

This last example suggests that sometimes a violent action is morally required. This would happen when the violence fosters order rather than disorder. The rationale for this possibility rests on the following assumptions:

l. Violence (in the sense of doing injury) is not in and of itself disorderly. Violence to be moral needs justification but such justification is possible.

2. The order of the universe is served by the lessening of violence and therefore those charged with keeping the peace or with the care and training of others cannot be indifferent to its existence. Ordered love must act when it can to lessen the injury coming from violent acts whether these flow from blind forces of nature or perverse choices of humans.

3. In some cases the use of violence can quantitatively lessen the amount of violence in the universe. For example, mandatory vaccination against small pox ("injurious" in the sense of being an invasion of bodily integrity and a lessening of individual freedom) may prevent a much greater quantity of "injury" coming from a deadly plague.

4. In some cases the use of violence can lessen disorder in the universe by preventing violence which is both injurious and unjust. Thus a police officer charged with protection of the common good may actually lessen the disorder in the universe by killing an aggressor who threatens to kill an innocent civilian. Though a human life will be lost, it seems intuitively to be less disordered to have an unjust aggressor die than an innocent victim.

In sum, a typical Augustinian analysis of violence will admit that violence is morally permitted if it is an act of ordered love; that is, a choice which does not disturb the order of the universe. One may be morally obliged to perform a violent act if it is clear that such an act is necessary or useful for the preservation or promotion of order. The sad fact of our present condition is that we live in a world of violence and sometimes justified violence may be the only way of lessening the disorder coming from unjust violence. To be sure, it is not a perfect solution, but in an imperfect world it may just be the only way to work for that order and peace which God originally intended and now desires for the human race.

4. Killing Humans: General Principles

The question here is whether the violent act of killing a human being is ever morally permitted. Augustine approaches this question from a world-view which has come to be described as the Sanctity of Life position. Its fundamental principle is:

Human life is sacred and should always be respected and, as far as reasonably possible, preserved.

This principle rests on three assumptions about the real world:

1. God exists and loves each and every human being from the first moment of the person's existence. The sanctity of the individual is based on the fact of this infinite love. It does not depend on a particular level of development or achievement.

2. Life is loaned to each individual in trust. Because the individual is given life to accomplish a purpose determined by God, the individual never acquires that perfect dominion over life which permits its destruction without asking whether it is in accord with God's will. Acts of preserving or destroying life, fighting to continue life or allowing to die, must be able to be interpreted as being in accord with the will of God, that one who has ultimate dominion over every human life.

3. Human beings are called to be cooperators in implementing God's intentions in a universe in which all things do not automatically work out for the good. God wills the order of the universe and the peace and happiness that flows from such perfect order. Humans have the responsibility of working for and with this divine will in their daily life. Humans cannot be spectators in the war between good and evil. When they can they must use their intelligence and free will to lessen the amount of suffering and injustice in the world.30

Working from these assumptions about the nature of reality, Augustine comes to the conclusion that the killing of a human being is not always and everywhere wrong. It is not like blasphemy, an act which is always disordered. If killing is a disorderly act and therefore immoral, it will be so because it is done without proper authority and/or because it is done with a bad intention. Augustine expresses these conclusions in various ways and in various places. For example:

Everyone who kills a human being without authorization of lawful power is a murderer.31

Even though it is said "you shall not kill!" it should not be thought to be a violation of this precept when the law itself permits killing or when God commands that someone be killed. When he who makes the law orders a course of action, the subject of the law is not allowed to refuse.32

The divine law which forbids the killing of human beings does allow for some exceptions: (1) when God authorizes killing by means of a general law that can apply to a number of cases and (2) when God authorizes the killing in an individual instance at a particular time. The human being who kills in such cases is only the sword in the hand of God and is thus not acting on his own nor does he violate the commandment: "You should not kill!" Thus, it does not go against God's will to wage war at God's bidding, or for those authorized by the state to execute criminals under the guidance of law and the reasonable demands of justice. Thus, Abraham was not only innocent of criminal viciousness but was even praised for his virtue when he consented to sacrifice his son out of obedience to God. However, anyone who kills himself or another is guilty of murder except in the two circumstances mentioned above: (1) someone acting directly under the orders of God in an special case or (2) someone acting under a general principle that can be reasonably argued to be in accord with God's will.33

This last quotation indicates the two possible ways in which (in Augustine's opinion) divine authorization for killing can be given. First of all, it may be given by a just law or rule which has general application to a wide range of similar cases. When civil rulers wage just wars or execute criminals for cause, they need not wait for explicit authorization from God in each individual case. The law imposing upon them the obligation to protect the common good gives them the authority to initiate killing acts which seem (on the basis of a prayerful rational analysis of the situation) necessary to fulfill that obligation.

The divine authorization may also be given by an explicit permission or command in a particular case. It is possible that God will command a king to begin a war or to execute a criminal. It is even possible that God will command an ordinary individual to kill. Augustine points to story of Samson's suicide and Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac as instances where this latter extraordinary event occurred. Both cases involve the directly willed death of an innocent person and both were justified because God either permitted the killing act (Samson) or commanded it (Isaac).

There are important differences in the two modes of authorization. Authorization by general law (for example, in the just war or capital punishment) allows the state authority to act within broad parameters in deciding when to wage war or to execute criminals. The ruler of a civil society is permitted to allow killing for just cause but is not usually explicitly commanded to do so. Discretion is given to the proper authority to decide in an individual case whether to kill or let live. In coming to a decision there is the possibility of arguing from precedents. Decisions made in one instance will have moral implications for future cases of the same kind. One can argue from what has been to what should be. When the authorization comes through some special revelation in an individual case, no such argument can be constructed. Thus, the cases of Samson's suicide and Abraham's intended sacrifice of his son are unique cases and no general rule can be inferred from them except that "One may kill a human being if there is certitude that God has commanded it."34 There is no question that God could make a similar command again, but the event would be truly extraordinary. Augustine does not exclude this possibility but he does warn those who believe that God is giving them such a terrible charge: "Make certain that there is no doubt that the command is divine."35 In matters of human life and human death one must be sure that the supposed "divine connection" is not a wrong number.

Augustine's general position on the killing of human beings may be summarized in the following statements:

1. It is possible that the choice to kill a human being is a moral act. To be so, the act must be commanded or permitted by the authority of God. As Augustine insists: "No private individual has the personal right to kill another human being even in circumstances where the person killed is guilty of some crime."36

2. Historically, such authorization has been given in two different ways:

a. by general law giving rational guidelines to be applied by those with authority over human communities in situations where the killing act is necessary for the protection of the community. This mode of authorization assumes that the one killed is not an innocent person; they are or have been involved in some materially unjust action against the community. Also the authorization in these cases gives permission to kill if in the prudent judgment of the human authority this is seen to be absolutely necessary for the protection of the community. Only in extraordinary circumstances will there be an obligation to kill and the burden of proof is on the one who asserts such an obligation.

b. by a special revelation from God commanding the killing act. Such commands may be directed to civil authorities to wage this war or to execute that individual. Such commands may even be given to private individuals to kill an innocent human being, one neither perpetrating nor guilty of a crime.

3. Even though authorization to kill has been received, the action may still become immoral if intention is disordered (for example, if a soldier takes fiendish glee in injuring the enemy) or if the God-given authority is exercised for self-serving reasons.

These are the general principles which provide the foundation for Augustine's conclusions on war and capital punishment, the topics for the two chapters to follow.37


1. The Trinity, 3.4.9. John Rist writes: ".... the bleak and brutal hierarchies of Roman North Africa are the setting for Augustine's pessimistic estimation of the edifying power of the state. Augustine's Africa is deformed by misery (A Literal Commentary on Genesis, 11.35.48), madness (The City of God, 22.22) and the sufferings of children (Against Julian the Heretic, 5.1.4). Yet few beyond the sufferers are concerned. In Augustine's rather Hobbesian universe, the stronger will impose some kind of rule and some kind of peace, and willy-nilly that `peace' will somewhat restrain the hand of other malefactors." John Rist, Augustine: Ancient Thought Baptized (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 225. For the historical background of the North African Christianity faced by Augustine, see J.E. Merdinger, Rome and the African Church in the Time of Augustine (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), pp. 3-27.

2. Commentary on Psalm 9, 8.

3. The City of God, 4.3.

4. Letter 185, 6.21. Deane summarizes Augustine's position as follows: "Only a small minority of men are, during their earthly lives converted by God's grace and changed from sinful to redeemed men and this handful of saints cannot in this world be certainly distinguished from the crowd of sinners among whom they live, work, and die. It is therefore absolutely impossible to establish on earth a society or state made up of saints or true Christians. Thus, if we wish to understand how social, economic, and political life operate, and how, indeed, they must operate, we have to start with the assumption that we are dealing, for the most part, with fallen, sinful men." Herbert A. Deane, The Political and Social Ideas of St. Augustine (New York: Columbia University Press, 1963), p. 40. "Thus (he adds), every earthly state will be composed primarily of sinners with perhaps a scattering of saints living in their midst" (ibid., p. 116).

5. In his work Free Choice (1.15), Augustine gives a list of some of the areas where temporal law legitimately legislates so that "peace and human society" may be preserved. Included are matters relating to the health of the body, personal freedom, and ownership of personal possessions.

6. Augustine writes: "In temporal law there is nothing just and lawful which men have not derived from eternal law."(Free Choice, 1.6). "The good and wise person who creates temporal law should consult that eternal law so that he might discern what should be commanded and what should be forbidden in time."(On True Religion, 31.58). In the same vein, he writes to Marcellinus that settling with one's enemies through agreement rather than revenge is the source of the state's strength and such a process is commanded by divine authority. (Letter 130, 1.10-11). See also Sermon 62, 8.13; Commentary on Psalm 145, 15, Letter 185, 2.8. For commentary see R.A. Markus, Saeculum (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970) pp. 88-89.

7. Romans 13:1-5. See 1 Peter 2:13-14.

8. Confessions, 3.8.15. See Exposition of some Propositions from the Epistle to the Romans, 72. Commentary on Psalm 124, 7. See R.H. Barrow, Introduction to St. Augustine: City of God (London, Faber & Faber, 1950), p. 235. Speaking specifically against the Donatist complaints about the intervention of civil society in church matters, Augustine responds that anyone who resists duly constituted authority resists the command of God.(Against Writings of Petelian the Donatist, 2.20.45). See Sermon 358, 6, where Augustine implores the people to avoid a civil disturbance, if not out of love for their bishops, at least out of respect for the civil authority which acts with the authority of God in trying to keep the peace.

9. The City of God, 5.19.

10. Ibid., 5.21.

11. Ibid., 5.17. Augustine instructed the people of Hippo: "If your parents are bringing you up for Christ, they are to be heard in all things. They must be obeyed in every command, but let them not command anything against one above themselves. ... Your country again should be above your very parents. Thus, if they command anything against your country, they are not to be listened to. And if your country should command something against the laws of God, it should not be listened to."(Sermon 62, 8).

12. Exposition of some Propositions from the Epistle to the Romans, 72. See Sermon 302, 19. See Deane, op. cit., pp. 148-9.

13. See Letter 185, 2.8; Letter 105, 7.

14. Commentary on Psalm 124, 7.

15. Sermon 302, 10-11. See Deane, op. cit., p. 149.

16. Sermon 302, 3-7.

17. Ibid., 7.

18. The City of God, 5.17.

19. Against Cresconius the Donatist, 3.51.56.

20. On True Religion, 55.3.

21. The City of God, 4.3.

22. Letter 47, 2. See P.R.L. Brown, "Political Society," in R.A. Markus (ed.), Augustine (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1972), p. 324.

23. The City of God, 18.2. See Deane, op. cit., pp. 46-7.

24. The City of God, 17.13.

25. Examples of each view can be found throughout ancient and modern philosophy. For example, Hobbes and Nietzsche hold that the human animal is fundamentally anti-social and must be corralled and controlled by strong laws and strong leaders. Schopenhauer writes: "Man is at bottom a savage, horrible beast. We know it if only in the business of taming and restraining him which we call civilization."(The Pessimist's Handbook, Hazel E. Barnes ed. [Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1964], pp. 338-39). The influence of environment has been stressed by Behaviorism and such philosophers as Marx and Rousseau. The view that "virtue is knowledge" comes close to the position that freedom is the determining factor in that it does point to an internal cause that is in the control of the individual. However, when it maintains that knowledge predetermines choice, it can be interpreted as a form of environmentalism. In its purest form, the theory that emphasizes freedom maintains that even with the most complete of knowledge of the best alternative, humans could still choose the opposite. An example of how these approaches are reflected in current debate about social issues can be found in an interesting article by Andrew Hacker, "On Original Sin And Conservatives," in The New York Times Magazine, February 25, 1973, pp. 13 ff. A comparison of the views of Augustine and Hobbes is given by Deane, op. cit., p. 50 & pp. 234-5.

26. The City of God, 22.22. For an extended and well-documented presentation of Augustine's views on the human condition see Deane, op. cit., pp. 39-77. See also G.R. Evans, Augustine on Evil (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), pp. 29 ff.

27. Against Faustus the Manichean, 22.73.

28. Ibid., 22.78.

29. Confessions, 1.9.14-15; Commentary on the Letter of John to the Parthians, 7.8.

30. On these points see James M. Gustafson, The Contribution of Theology To Medical Ethics (Chicago: Marquette Univ. Press, 1975), pp. 22-23. Paul Ramsey reflected the sanctity of life position clearly when he wrote: "No one is ever much more than a fellow fetus; and in order not to become confused about life's primary value, it is best not to concentrate on degrees of relative worth we may later acquire." Paul Ramsey "The Morality of Abortion," in Moral Problems, edited by James Rachels (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), p. 45. Augustine said much the same thing when he wrote: "In view of the encompassing network of the universe and the whole creation ... a network that is perfectly ordered in time and place, where not even one leaf of a tree is superfluous ... it is not possible to create a superfluous human being." Free Choice, 3.23.

31. Letter 204, 5.

32. Questions on the Heptateuch, 2.17.

33. The City of God, 1.21.

34. Ibid., 1.26.

35. Ibid.

36. Ibid., 1.17.

37. The moral principles guiding the taking of human life also apply on the individual level in matters such as suicide (Samson), killing the innocent (Abraham and Isaac), and killing in defense of one's own life. Since we are examining only the state's power to kill, these issues will not be discussed here. I have examined such issues in the following two articles: "To Live or Let Die: Augustine on Killing the Innocent," Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association, 1984, pp. 112-119; "The Moral Uses Of Violence: An Augustinian View", published in Studia Ephermeridis "Augustinianum" (Rome: Institutum Patristicum "Augustinianum", 1987), pp. 26-54.

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