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Augustine as Critic of Liberal Society

In Book 2 of the City of God appears a truly remarkable passage, in which Augustine criticizes Roman society and law in terms that seem as if they were aimed directly at our own modern liberal society.  It is worth quoting in full:

"'So long as it [the republic] survives,' they say, 'so long as it prospers, rich in resources, self-confident in victory, or, better still, secure in peace, what difference does it make to us?  What matters is that there is money to be made to support our lavish style of life, and to give the stronger their hold over the weaker; that the poor treat the wealthy with compliance, to ensure their daily bread--the poor depending on the patronage of the wealthy for a quiet life, the wealthy calling on the poor for support to boost their public standing.  Popularity should accrue not to those whose policies promote public welfare, but to the big providers of public entertainment.  
Law should not be rigorous; low indulgences should not be proscribed.  Rulers should not bother themselves with getting virtuous subjects, simply quiescent ones.  Territories should view their rulers not in the light of moral educators, merely as economic managers and purveyors of satisfactions.  It does not matter if they do not seriously respect them, so long as they treat them with a calculating and subservient fear.  No one should be liable to court proceedings if he has not infringed or done harm to the property, real estate, or physical safety of another person without consent;* but everyone should be free to do with himself, his dependents, and consenting associates exactly what he likes.  Sexual satisfactions should be freely available on the open market for those who want them, especially those who cannot afford to maintain facilities privately.  Domestic architecture should be expensive and ornate, to accomodate large and lavish parties where anyone may game and drink all day and night, if he pleases, till he brings it up or sweats it out.  The sound of dancing should be heard in every neighborhood, and theaters should be humming with excitement at their coarse amusements and their various brash entertainments.  Should someone disapprove of this perfect contentment, he must expect to meet public hostility; and should someone attempt to reform or abolish it, the spirit of popular freedom must know what to do with him: shut him up, pack him up, beat him up!  Religion ought to make a case for itself by guaranteeing and perpetuating these conditions of life for the greatest number of people.  Let the gods have all the worship they want, and all the games that they ant, to enjoy them with (and at the expense of) their worshipers, just so long as they ensure this satisfactory state of affairs against threat from enemy, plague, or disaster.'"

*Joan O'Donovan states that this statement is virtually a textbook definition of the modern theory of law.

8 comments:

So are you a realist or an idealist when it comes to the saeculum? Is what Augustine describes the necessary state of the state?

February 10, 2010 at 8:56 PM  

Davey, you're such a nerd. Can't a man enjoy a sweet quote? ;-)

February 10, 2010 at 9:39 PM  

The serious answer is, No, that's not the necessary state of the state. A Christian prince in a Christian society can certainly us something much better. But--and this is a big but--although the Christian state may well reform these particular evils, it can hardly resist falling prey to others, more subtle, insidious, and perhaps more damaging (e.g., manipulation and control of the Church, etc.). Hence my unsettled doubt.

February 11, 2010 at 9:39 AM  

I agree that Western Society is in many ways tracking the later years of the western Roman Empire. It is a sweet quote...does it have any useful application in our time?

February 14, 2010 at 7:25 PM  

I like this translation. Whose is it?

February 16, 2010 at 7:57 PM  

Translation is by Oliver and Joan O'Donovan in their From Irenaeus to Grotius: A Sourcebook of Christian Political Thought. They do such an excellent job with the excerpts in there that I wish they'd find time to try their hand at a complete translation of the City of God. But, I doubt that's likely any time soon.

February 16, 2010 at 8:37 PM  

It is certainly a very readable translation, much better than my copy, translated by Marcus Dods. I am not enough of a Latinist to say whether it is a better translation, but it is certainly better English.

Excellent post; I am lifting it for my blog. "Let somebody else do the work" is my motto. I am a man of my time.

February 16, 2010 at 8:43 PM  

No problem. I'm always happy to help out the Distributist Review, even if I did only discover it two days ago. :-)

February 17, 2010 at 12:23 PM  

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