The Libertarian (Minarchist) Saint Augustine

What if I said that St. Augustine was a libertarian? This is not mere provocation. Aside from the obvious anachronism of applying a modern term to the late Roman period this statement is probably true. Of course there are some caveats. Augustine was a theologian and political theory was only of marginal interest. He did not, so far as I can tell, stress the importance of human agency and property rights or the dignity of man but his ultimate political prescription is for some sort of minarchism.

 

For Augustine people could not be trusted. The only purposes of the state are to protect citizens from internal and external threats. Beyond this it ought to restrain itself for action was likely to do more harm than good. Besides, even if the state could affect positive change such action was not likely to succeed, was not its purpose, and not of any real consequence (given the importance of the spiritual life). To be fair this is pushing the matter a bit far as our political systems today are more nuanced and more representative than those of the late Roman period but even so there is a definitive libertarian bent in Augustine’s political thought (and politics is the concern here). 

 

The most important insight though is that Augustine (most famously in his distinction between the City of God and the City of Man) emphasized the importance of different spheres in which human beings may operate. In a certain sense Augustine was fortunate to live in such a violent and chaotic era and, more importantly, one in which his spiritual system had not yet fully triumphed. As such he recognized what the medievals (Aquinas)

forgot and what the moderns are barely able to recognize: that politics is not everything, much less the most important thing, there are other distinct spheres in which we can act.

 

In the medieval world administrative collapse, feudalism and a spiritually homogenous society allowed for church and state (read morality and state in later eras) to be intertwined. This trend was solidified most notably in 1648 by the Treaty of Westphalia (which simultaneously cemented the notion that the nation-state is a legitimate political unit and declared that the sovereign ought to determine the religion of his subjects). Of course the enlightenment projects operated on the same principle. The state ought to walk hand in hand with science and progress and the creation of a better man.

 

Now we find ourselves in 2014 and are so enamored with politics and what we imagine it entails that we generally believe, either explicitly or implicitly that whatever is good must somehow be connected to the political realm. Augustine recognized that this was not the case. Between the fourth century and the rise of modern liberalism (though not all varieties) only a few reformed theologians seemed to recognize this truth and they were essentially swept away. They were of course admirers of Augustine and like him were more interested in theology than practical politics.

 

Nevertheless Augustine had hit on something fundamental. Politics is not nearly as important as we like to pretend. We ought to be very suspicious of those with power. We ought to exercise ourselves in other spheres. The state has no legitimate functions beyond merely protecting us from harm. That which matters is not, and ought not, to be political.

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3 thoughts on “The Libertarian (Minarchist) Saint Augustine

  1. Brumbaugh

    While you can make a big deal out of the whole “two cities” distinction, and Augustine’s pessimistic view of human agency, there are a few things about his political thought that really show how anachronistic it is to call him a “libertarian.” Perhaps the most clear is his political/theological approach and actual treatment of the Donatists. In response to this “heresy” (if you want to call it that… The Donatists simply had higher standards for their churches… Not accepting people who has denounced the church during persecution) Augustine created a doctrine to legitimate the use of force against such groups. Rather than arguing for a minimalist state that would stay out of an ecclesiastical controversy, Augustine implored the local magistrates to use military force to “encourage” the Donatists to return to the “true Church.” Whether or not you agree with the Donatist theological position or Augustine’s, the fact that the Bishop of Hippo was so quick to turn to the state to support his theological position should put to rest any of this “libertarian” talk.

  2. njgreg

    I am fully aware of the anachronism involved (read the third sentence of the entry) and am careful to specify that when I mean libertarian I am speaking of a set of political structures (minarchism). The main point is that Augustine held a belief that the political sphere was not all that important and should not be our primary concern. Furthermore people could not be trusted in any meaningful capacity which casts further dispersions upon the use of politics to achieve certain ends. This view is opposed to that of the classical Greeks, the medievals and most modern movements. It is shared by some reformers and many (though not all) libertarians.

    As to the Donatists, Augustine’s call for persecution by the state seems to me to be an exception to the rule and is motivated not so much by a desire to persecute heretics but rather to maintain internal order. The Donatists were known to commit arson and murder and this would call for state intervention regardless of any religious dimension. More important though is that the Donatist controversy peaked around 411-414 whereas “City of God” was composed later (413-426). I use this, justly I think, to represent Augustine’s mature and definitive thought.

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