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Politics and the Order of Love: An Augustinian Ethic of Democratic Citizenship
Politics and the Order of Love: An Augustinian Ethic of Democratic Citizenship
Eric Gregory
University of Chicago Press, 2008
434 pp., 95.16

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Charles Mathewes


Augustinian Politics

Looking for common ground with liberalism.

Like many good books, this is an act of faith. It has faith that secular liberals will listen to a religious voice, hear its consonances with theirs, and be open to learning from its wisdom. And yet it keeps faith with Christian audiences who think (rightly) of Augustine as more than just a resource for contemporary political thought. The Augustine who emerges is both astutely political and unapologetically theological. If non-religious political theorists have one chance to hear an Augustinian voice, it should be Eric Gregory's. This is a major contribution to contemporary discussions in religion and politics. While I disagree with some of the project's fundamental strategic choices, that disagreement is precisely the sort of productive dispute that contemporary political theology ought to be exploring these days.

Before I go on, a caveat lector is in order. Eric Gregory and I are good friends. We both teach religious ethics and theology. We email regularly. We go to the same conferences, and talk excitedly between sessions like teenagers at a rock concert. I've invited him to UVA, where I teach, and he's invited me to Princeton, where he teaches. In 2007, I published a book arguing for a reappropriation of Augustine's insights for politics. In 2008, he published a book arguing for a reappropriation of Augustine's insights for politics. I even blurbed his book. Now I'm supposed to review it? Talk about over-determination.

In truth, though, our books are quite different. Mine is primarily theological, detailing how Christians should understand their civic obligations from a faithful perspective. Gregory's is primarily political, detailing how Augustine and his heirs may help all citizens, religious and non-religious alike, to understand the distinctive political challenges and opportunities inherent in a liberal democracy. It is fundamentally a contribution to discussions of political philosophy—though Christian readers will find hearty theological nourishment, as well as an exceptionally powerful set of arguments to direct to their non-Christian friends, neighbors, and political allies.

Gregory offers a "rational reconstruction of Augustinian liberalism," defending it both against liberals who think they ought to hate Augustine and against followers of Augustine who think they ought to hate liberalism. He wants to use "Augustine's grammar of love and sin to open up more conceptual space within liberal politics," hoping to develop a more mature and sophisticated appreciation of the challenges and opportunities that liberal societies—and liberal theory—afford us today.

Gregory worries that a pseudo-Augustinian pessimism could become an "entrenched cultural mood" among Christians—which would be bad for both the culture and the faithful. Yes, he allows, the regnant academic liberalism too often sacrifices intellectual capaciousness and moral wisdom for a sheen of dryly scholastic "rigor" (better described as rigor mortis); and yes, liberal societies do challenge traditional religious believers in distinctive ways. But this is our context, and we must confront it.

Doing so with an open mind, he says, we will see that many of the worries about liberalism are shared by thinkers with superficially quite divergent views. In one of the first of several attempts to gain allies in surprising places—Gregory is gifted with a canny irenic streak—he notes that some Augustinians and some feminists share a critique of mainstream liberal theory's "individualistic conceptions of self-mastery" as deeply flawed, and both promote instead an "ethics of care." If their concerns are similar, and their solutions align, perhaps there's more shared than the two parties have yet realized. Perhaps an Augustinian-feminist political ethics of care can be developed.

Yet such critiques, genuinely pursued, take us only so far. The broader tradition of liberalism has insights beyond the ken of contemporary academic "political liberalism." And the critics turn out, upon reflection, to be offering modifications of liberalism, not wholesale rejections of it. One critical modification may be developed through Augustine, who can help us not only to plumb the depths of liberalism's limitations but also to scale the heights of its ambitions. For liberalism, Gregory argues, contains within itself more than just restraint; real community, real communion—in a word, love—is the aspirations of the liberal project, which has within itself the possibility of real if imperfect justice, not mere toleration. Little wonder that the United States—still the most "liberal" political entity in the world—is perpetually accused of both individualism and communal messianism; and these temptations reveal the reach of liberalism more searchingly than does contemporary academia's hegemonic liberalism.

While earlier versions of liberalism recognized this, "much of [recent] liberal theorizing fails to give an account of this desire." Augustine can, because he "affirms the desire but qualifies its possibilities for fulfillment in this life." This lets him offer "a more coherent and complex ethics of liberal citizenship that does not abandon justice but also does not privatize love." Love has a prophetic role to play; and here Gregory audaciously suggests that a stream of "prophetic Augustinianism" surges through 20th-century liberationist movements—particularly in the work of Gustavo Gutierrez and Martin Luther King, Jr. Here we see a liberalism acutely aware of the human capacity for justice and propensity for injustice, institutionally designed to encourage the former while discouraging the latter.

In all this Gregory exemplifies a new generation of religious thinkers on liberalism. Those of us who are under forty were raised on a steady diet featuring thinkers like Hauerwas and MacIntyre and thinkers driven crazy by them; the schizophrenia entailed by such an education has stymied many of my peers. Gregory is not among the vexed. He sees the wisdom and flaws on both sides, and he wants to transcend these debates. Yes, political liberalism has many vices, but we ought to allow ourselves a "critical admiration of liberalism's virtues." As "Augustinian pilgrims still on the way"—that is, on the way "to enjoying the politics of an infinite God"—we ought, in proper Augustinian fashion, to use the liberal societies that we inhabit as best we can, aware of their strengths and weaknesses. We ought to get on with the task of non-utopian thinking, asking questions about how we are to live here and now, instead of indulging in fantasized visions of the future (inevitably imagined in reactionary terms, experientially if not politically).

This means that the cultural criticism Gregory offers has a clear-eyed sobriety lacking in the eyes-scrunched-shut fury of the jeremiadist. It is not just an anti-but a counter-escapist form of critique. As he says, "the task for Christian social ethics today is to critically engage this reality with something like the Augustinian humanism of an Erasmus rather than a new Augustinianism assailing the 'pagans.' " He's got plenty of concerns about contemporary culture; he plausibly complains that "the myths, symbols, and practices that govern liberal society are either dangerously anemic or excessively prideful," and that liberal society "paradoxically displays, at the same time, apathetic resignation and polarizing mobilization of group interests." But by the time he makes these complaints—they come at the book's end—he has earned the right to them, and they serve more to focus our critical attention than as a elixir to enchant his readers that they are justified in not caring about their society.

This new Augustinian liberalism is the central contribution of Gregory's work. But it is not the only one, for Augustine geeks like me. He also draws on new scholarship on Augustine's political thought to explain how carefully we must apply our procrustean political categories to the good bishop. Notoriously, like the Bible, Augustine is too often the victim of partial readings and prooftexting. You can find an existentialist, a crusading theocrat, a pietist, a bourgeois—just about anything you want. He wrote so much that survives (and more continues to be discovered—six likely sermons were found in Erfurt, Germany, just in April 2008) that it is hard to come to grips with his thought in any scholarly responsible manner. But insofar as that is doable, Gregory has done it. He sees that the core of Augustine's theology is its theological-moral psychology, anchored in Christologically formed love; love is "the overarching grammar of his entire thought." Gregory cites Jean Bethke Elshtain, for whom Augustine's agent is "someone caught up in a love affair with the world." Against charges that he was, in Annette Baier's phrase, a "misamorist," urging us to hate all worldly things, Gregory shows that in the context of his engagement with ancient philosophy (especially Stoicism), Augustine was quite affirming of the value of the emotions, precisely because Christ sanctified them as part of our eschatological destiny. And this account of love is unintelligible without reference to Christ. Augustine's Christology has not received a great deal of attention, mostly because it is so boringly orthodox; but recent scholarship, most notably by Lewis Ayres and Robert Dodaro (whose Christ and the Just Society in the Thought of Augustine has now replaced R. A. Markus' Saeculum as the gold standard for historical study on Augustine's political thought), highlights the centrality of Christ for Augustine's overall theology. Gregory uses their work to help articulate Augustine's Christoform account of love as a virtue; this in turn lets him fashion an ethics of liberal citizenship as a "school of virtue."

The training in patient, humble, virtuous love that we receive through our political tutelage can help us endure liberalism—to strengthen its frailties and build on its blessings—making us not only good citizens but also better Christians. So long as one keeps in mind the "[d]ynamic relation between love and sin," love can be a functional analytic category, neither evaporating into a cloud of good intentions (as in political romanticism) nor ossifying into a mallet used to hammer down dissent (as in illiberal paternalism). Just as individual citizens can understand their political actions as motivated by love, so can the political authorities. Gregory shows this by developing Paul Ramsey's Augustinian theory of just war into a general vision of a politics based on love that avoids paternalism by genuinely constraining the shape of legitimate political action through the regulative norm "of love for God within the Augustinian ethics of love itself"; this "both democratizes and publicizes love through a theological (and so political) populism." Both from above and below, then, a politics based on love can genuinely work in liberal societies.

This proposal has implications beyond "the future of Augustinian liberalism," as Gregory notes; many of the world's deepest conflicts exist where traditional moral and religious communities encounter liberal societies, and the health of the next century "may turn on whether or not we human beings can learn to desire more than ourselves without killing each other or simply forgetting about the shared goods of political life in pursuit of private perfection, aesthetic delight, entertaining distractions, economic security, and even spiritual freedom." In short, Gregory's book is a major contribution. Anyone teaching an advanced undergraduate or graduate course on Christianity and politics ought to assign this book, and anyone interested in Christian theology's engagement with public life ought to read it.

Of course, no book of over three hundred pages can do everything perfectly. Sometimes it's overstuffed; there's too much signposting throughout, and overly long, not fully digested discussions of other thinkers. And sometimes it's under-argued. Gregory could have more deeply explored the broader liberal tradition he wants to advance; for example, had he explored the resonances and dissonances between Augustine and Mill on individualism, and between Augustine and Tocqueville on human community, it could have paid rich dividends. Furthermore, the tantalizing claim that Gutierrez and King are Augustinians is frustratingly undeveloped, more a gesture than a weight-bearing piece of argument. And so on.

These are very minor faults of execution, and in a book of such ambition, they neither detract from its value nor undermine my admiration for it. But admiration and affirmation are distinct things. And it's only fair to say that I disagree with some of the fundamental assumptions driving the book. It is not primarily addressed to Christians but to secular liberal political thinkers, in the hope that they will find it, read it, and absorb its lessons. Will it move this audience? I have my doubts. Should it be oriented this way? On that I have my doubts as well.

I won't spend time debating whether this audience will heed it. I wish it would, but I bet it won't. (Watch the next decade of mainstream political theory to see if the book has much impact.) Still, it is worth the try, and I applaud Gregory for the effort.

But I do think that this effort slightly warps Gregory's argument. Despite his disclaimers that he's "not making Augustine safe for democracy," I worry that he inadvertently does just that. I worry that the book's interest in convincing liberal theorists leads it to downplay those dimensions of Augustine's thought that are most unpalatable to those theorists, most especially the extremity of Augustine, emphasizing instead his sensible moderation. Gregory spends very little time exploring the first ten books of the City of God, those books in which Augustine takes a chain-saw to late antique Roman laissez-faire ideology, the closest thing in his world to our "liberalism." And I suspect that those first ten books are more expressive of Augustine's vision of worldly life than Gregory allows. It seems to me that Gregory underemphasizes the eschatological dialectic at the heart of Augustine's thought—Augustine's insistence that whatever order we enjoy here is borrowed, terrifyingly, from the coming reign of God, and is radically accountable to that reign. Political order is, then, a deeply unstable reality—always susceptible to revolution and always volubly (for Augustine) and radically dependent on God, in ways that may make secular liberal theorists uneasy.

From where I sit, Gregory misses the absolutist, fulminatory Augustine, the vehement Augustine, the axe-wielding John-Brownish Augustine—the more excitedly dialectical Lutheran Augustine—in favor of the calmer, Thomist Augustine. I'm not saying that this Lutheran Augustine is more authentic than the Thomist Augustine Gregory develops; but I am saying he is equally authentic.

Yes, liberalism can be construed, as Gregory says, as a series of "footnotes to Augustine." But much of anti-liberalism can be construed that way as well. Gregory's salutary wish to avoid theological grumpiness means he downplays these anti-liberal suspicions. And yet accommodating these anti-liberal suspicions is crucial to understanding Augustine.

It's crucial to developing the right kind of liberalism, too. That is to say, Gregory's selection of liberal theorists leaves him with a too-narrow understanding of liberalism. There is a strand of liberalism—the stream running from Montesquieu through Tocqueville and Mill to Isaiah Berlin, Charles Taylor, and Bill Galston in our own day—that gives voice to some of the most deep and troubling challenges to the liberal imagination. But Gregory's is the Rawlsian strand of liberalism—a liberalism that can grudgingly be made to appreciate chastening, but that cannot countenance ambivalence.

If Augustine is a liberal, he is not one simply because he is "chastened." (We should probably retire "chastened." It's one of those words that, when used, typically signify the opposite of what they mean—like "gentlemen's clubs," or a faculty member who wants to make "a few comments.") If Augustine is a liberal, he is one because he is deeply, profoundly, dialectically ambivalent about the goods that liberalism propagates. Gregory tries to get at this with his attention to Augustine's perfectionism, but—for me—those moments are not sufficiently worked into his account. And since it is precisely liberalism's ambivalence about itself that I value most, I find myself not able to assent fully to Gregory's proposal.

This is a real difference, but it is the sort of difference that theological and philosophical learning can build upon. In the end, I can't say whether this book's act of faith will be proven true. I'm confident, though, that Gregory's book is more than just an act of faith: In the rumination and reflection it entailed, the re-reading and re-writing it demanded, the continual insistence that one's patience with oneself must be taxed even further in the quest for just the right balance between affirmation and critique, endorsement and distance—in all these ways this work is not simply an excellent scholarly work but, as Augustine would put it, and more properly, a act of love.

Charles Mathewes is associate professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia. He is the author most recently of The Republic of Grace: Augustinian Thoughts in Dark Times (Eerdmans).

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