Stain Augustine and the Just War Tradition Ch#3 Part 1

Stain Augustine and the Just War Tradition

Saint Augustine is widely recognized as the father of modern Just War theory. In this chapter we will summarize his principles of bellum justum and also the arguments he offers to support these principles.

Stain Augustine and the Just War Tradition Ch#3 Part 1


Augustine was a philosopher before his conversion, and many of the ideas he espoused were taken directly from Plato and Cicero, while others were derived from his interpretation of the Gospel. In either case, he invariably attempts to support his views-including those that have their origins in Greek and Roman philosophy-with evidence from the Old and New Testaments.

One problem with defending Greek and Roman Just War principles with Christian premises is that if the premises can be called into question, then the conclusions themselves become suspect, even though they may originally have been derived from secular premises. The later jurists and philosophers of the Middle Ages will use Augustine as their starting point, but will strive to formulate their Just War arguments to be less dependent on revealed premises, as we shall see in later chapters.

A second consideration to keep in mind when studying Augustine’s writing is that in defending Catholic orthodoxy against both the pagans and the many divisions within the Church itself, he develops his own philosophy of history, political philosophy, and conception of humans as moral agents (his psychology), and an understanding of Augustine’s innovations in these topics is often crucial to understanding how he arrives at certain aspects of his theory of Just War.

While our purpose is to understand Augustine’s thinking on bellum justum, it will be necessary to discuss, at least to some extent, both his philosophy of history and his psychology in order to accomplish this.

We will divide our exposition into three broad sections: Augustine’s philosophy of history, his political philosophy, and his views on human beings as moral agents. Let us begin, however, with a brief background.

Augustine was born in A.D. 354 and converted to Christianity in 386. During his lifetime (in A.D. 383), Christianity was adopted as the official state religion of the Roman Empire (although all but one of the emperors had all been Christians since Constantine became a convert and issued the Edict of Milan proclaiming toleration of Christians in A.D. 312).

Augustine also lived during a period of decline for the Roman Empire, which included the sack of Rome by Alaric the Visigoth in 411-an event that shocked the Roman world. His own city, Hippo, in northern Africa, felt the pressure of barbarian expansion, and during the last two years of Augustine’s life the only thing that separated his community from being overrun was the Roman army. In fact, Hippo fell to the Vandals under Genseric in 431, the year following Augustine’s death.

In addition to these external secular threats to Augustine’s world, his life was also a period of great divisiveness within the Church, with multiple sects claiming orthodoxy and vying for leadership and followers. Augustine himself was once a follower of the Manichaeans (a dualistic religion whose founder, Mani, claimed to be a prophet sent by Christ), although after his conversion he worked hard to expose the heretical nature of their beliefs; his De Libero Arbitrio is largely directed toward this end.

One difficulty with extracting a single coherent theory of justum bellum from Augustine stems from the fact that much of his work, especially that relevant to our topic, was written either

(1) In response to inquiries by Christians concerning their religion,

(2) In an effort to stem the growing divisiveness in the Church, or

(3) To respond to attacks against the Church by either the pagans or other religious sects. His thoughts on justum bellum are nested in such works, and there is no single source where we can find even a majority of his views on our topic.

For example, his writing against the British monk Pelagius is primarily a defense of God’s grace as a necessary condition of salvation. The Pelagians denied the doctrine that mankind was inescapably cursed through Adam’s Original Sin, and asserted instead a doctrine whereby salvation was wholly dependent on a virtuous life attainable by everyone through the judicious exercise of their free will.

Inherent in this position was the contention that men should maintain their purity by remaining aloof from all political affairs. In responding to this heresy Augustine explains, among other things, that the soul has the franchise on the normative worth of human actions. Thus, it is what one holds in one’s heart- i.e., one’s intentions-rather than one’s actions that are weighed by God. This idea is crucial to Augustine’s principle of benevolent severity, which he often invokes as a justification for violence.

In addition to defining Manichaeanism and Pelagianism as heresies, Augustine excludes Donatism from Christian orthodoxy. In his writing against the Donatists he is largely concerned with condemning their practice of granting a second baptism; but he also seeks to refute their contention that all political institutions are diabolical. In defending political institutions (such as the Roman Empire). Augustine defends the institutional use of force as a means of maintaining peace and order.

Augustine’s The City of God is a response to accusations by the pagans that the decline of Rome at the hands of the barbarians was the divine retribution of Jove. It is also meant to provide Christians with an explanation for the barbarian successes against the (by then) Christian Empire-an explanation especially needed because of Ambrose’s admonishment that earlier barbarian successes were due to the pagan nature of the empire.

Considering the motivation for these works, along with the fact that Augustine’s thoughts on various topics were developed over the last forty years of his life, one can easily understand why they do not lend themselves to scrutiny as a tight, consistent philosophy on bellum justum. With this in mind, let us turn to his work.

Like: In The Old Days Only War

Philosophy of History


We begin with the charge, levied by Rome’s pagans, that the sack of Rome by Alaric was divine retribution by Jove for the empire’s adoption of Christianity. This charge was not easily dismissed, even by the faithful, for it was plausible to think that an event of such catastrophic proportions must be the work of God. To accept the idea that God would permit the earthly bastion of Christianity to be raped by pagans was not consistent with commonly held beliefs about the omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibeneficent nature of the Christian God.

Many of the faithful, faced with explaining God’s actions, concluded that the demise of the empire signaled the onset of the eschatological promise. And indeed, the eternal empire, the paxromana that had endured for centuries, seemed to be coming to an end.

Augustine responded to these issues with a philosophy of history that he develops in The City of God. He begins by addressing the pagan charge that Christianity was the cause of the empire’s demise. After researching and chronicling all the calamities, spiritual and physical, that he could say had ever befallen Greece or Rome under paganism, Augustine concludes:

Yet which of these disasters, suppose they happened now, would not be attributed to the Christian religion by those who thus thoughtlessly accuse us, and who we are compelled to answer? And to their own gods they attribute none of these things, though they worship them for the sake of escaping lesser calamities of the same kind, and do not reflect that they who formerly worshiped them were not pre- served from these serious disasters.

Augustine goes on to explain that humanity’s suffering is both a punishment and a remedy for sin. World history is a process, culminating in the Last Judgment, whereby men and women suffer as redemption for Original Sin. Specific events in the epic of time, such as wars, battles, or the fall of empires, are the means whereby God at once punishes and absolves humanity for its sins. Political turmoil and, indeed, all events in the temporal world must be under- stood as part of the divine plan.

Augustine argues that there are two cities on earth that coexist and whose inhabitants commingle. The civitas Del came into being with the beginning of time when God created the universe?; the civitas terrena came into being with the Fall of Man and will cease to exist when humanity’s redemption is complete as signified by the Last Judgment. The latter is limited to the temporal world, and its citizens are those who are without efficacious grace: a society of the reprobate.

The former consists of heaven plus those very few elect persons on earth who have been granted efficacious grace. Both earthly groups are infected with the curse of Original Sin and are “slaves to sin,” but the members of civitasterrena are motivated solely by self-love (cupiditas), which manifests itself as a lust for wealth, glory, and power, and is at the root of the pain, suffering, and corruption of the human condition.

The former group (the elect) have been granted efficacious grace and are motivated by unselfish love of God (caritas), which gives them the strength to exercise their will in always choosing the lesser over the greater evil.

Because both the elect and the reprobate coin habit the same terra firma and are equally infected with the curse of Original Sin. Each experiences the wars of the flesh against the spirit and of man against man, although each is affected differently by the experience.

For even in the likeness of the sufferings, there remains an unlikeness in the sufferers; and though exposed to the same anguish, virtue and vice are not the same thing…the same violence of affliction proves, purges, clarifies the good, but damns, ruins, exterminates the wicked. For, stirred up with the same movement, mud exhales a horrible stench, and ointment emits a fragrant odor.

A crucial aspect of Augustine’s theory is that neither the civitasterrena nor the civitas Dei is equated with the Roman Empire (or the Church): Both societies-the elect and the reprobate-transcend political boundaries. His point here is not to discredit the Roman state, but simply to diminish the relevance of its rise and fall, its successes and failures, as they relate to Christianity and God’sdivine plan. In fact, it is only through earthly suffering that mankind will attain redemption. Wars are one means by which humans receive both retribution and absolution for their sins; and thus even victories by the wicked have a purpose in the divine plan.

and every victory, even though gained by wicked men, is a result of For even when we wage a just war, our adversaries must be sinning the first judgment of God, who humbles the vanquished either for the sake of removing or of punishing their sins.

We see that this account of history at once responds to the pagan charge that the sack of Rome was inspired by Jove, as well as the Christian heresy that it was the beginning of Armageddon. Augustine manages to mitigate considerably the significance of all discrete earthly catastrophes by explaining them as mileposts along the road to mankind’s redemption.

Another key aspect of Augustine’s philosophy of history is its emphasis on a world society wherein the citizens of civitas Dei and civitas terrena share a common bond in that they all are descended from Adam and they all share the curse of his sin. Even the elect have no cause for self-exaltation because their selection is invariably arbitrary. The significance of Augustine’s notion of a world society of mankind that transcends political and national boundaries cannot be overstated.

While the idea is not new (having its origins in the Book of Genesis). Augustine is the first to state it definitively, and to state it to an audience that itself transcends national and political boundaries: Christians, The significance of a world society lies in the implication that judgments concerning bellum justum do not apply simply to Christians (or Romans), but to all of mankind. Of course, this premise concerning the unity of mankind can be supported just as well by secular arguments based on either evolution or rationality, as we shall see later.

Earthly society is, however, corrupt; and consequently, humans must continually struggle, often violently, to achieve peace that. When attained, is at best imperfect and ephemeral. As a social being, a person’s desire for peace is natural (and therefore good), as a fallen being a person’s cupiditas makes achievement of peace impossible Nevertheless, all mankind desires peace.

Whoever gives even moderate attention to human affairs and to our common nature, will recognize that there is no man…who does not wish to have peace. For even they who make war desire nothing but victory-desire, that is to say, to attain to peace with glory.

It is therefore with the desire for peace that wars are waged…. For even those who intentionally interrupt the peace in which they are living have no hatred of peace, but only wish it changed into a peace suits them better. They do not, therefore, wish to have no peace, but only one more to their mind.

The idea of human society, as conceived by God, is one where there is perfect peace and harmony among all members; the instantiation of it on earth, however, is plagued with conflict and violence.

Read More: Stain Augustine and the Just War Tradition Ch#3 Part 2

Leave a Comment