Augustine, Letter 136.2

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The compatibility of Christianity with wider citizenship

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Augustine of Hippo
411 CE to 412 CE
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Letter 136

For an introduction to Augustine, please see the commentary on City of God II.16.

Letter 136, along with Letter 138, responds to pagan questioning of the compatibility of Christianity with citizenship, specifically the claim that Christians were not capable of living as loyal Roman citizens. The letter is addressed to Augustine from Marcellinus, and the latter acts here as an intermediary between Augustine and Volusianus (on Marcellinus and Volusianus, see below), who has apparently made the argument that Christian pacifism was essentially a useless ideal, which left society open to attack. How was it possible for the members of a society to obey Jesus’s command to “turn the other cheek” to their enemies (cf. Matthew 5:39) or only return good for evil (cf. 1 Peter 3:9; Romans 12:17) and yet still defend themselves against hostiles? Volusianus could not reconcile Roman political policy with Christian tenets, and as we shall see, Augustine’s response here is essentially to argue that societies where the principle of returning good for evil was observed had major benefits. In his correspondence with Volusianus more widely, he draws on Cicero to argue that peace was the ideal basis of any city, and that true citizens should seek to maintain this. Moreover, he utilises the Roman historian Sallust to argue that great Romans had themselves acknowledged the civic value of the virtues which Christianity prioritised. In Letter 138.17, Augustine argues that prior to its acceptance of Christianity, the Roman empire was suffering from a complete deficit of morality, with ineffectual religious cults. At this point in time it was necessary for God to rescue the empire from its miserable fate by teaching its inhabitants the virtues of Christianity (see Letter 91 and the commentary on Letter 138.17; see also Margaret Atkins and Robert Dodaro, Political Writings, p. xxi).

To briefly introduce the key figures in this correspondence, Marcellinus was a tribune and imperial notary, and also a Christian friend of Augustine’s who was the recipient of six letters from the bishop and the dedicatee of three works (including the opening books of the City of God). The emperor Honorius tasked him with presiding over the conference of Carthage in June 411 CE, where the Donatists were condemned. However, he and his brother, the proconsul Apringius, were suspected of colluding in the revolt against the emperor by Heraclian, and subsequently executed on the 13th of September 413 CE, despite Augustine and other African bishops attempting to intercede. Volusianus was the proconsul of Africa, who resided in Carthage up until around 411 CE (see also Letters 132, 135, and 137 for further correspondence between him and Augustine). It is commonly assumed that he was a pagan for most of his life, refusing baptism because of doubts about doctrine and a worry that a Christian-led empire could not defend itself from its enemies due to its non-violent teachings (see, however, Peter Brown, “Aspects,” p. 7-8, who questions this assumption that Volusianus was pagan; see also Éric Rebillard, “Late Antique Limits,” p. 301). This is dealt with in the present letter. Volusianus was friends with Marcellinus, and served also as prefect in Rome (417-418 CE) and praetorian prefect of Italy and Africa (428-429 CE). He was eventually convinced by Melania the Younger, a Christian ascetic and friend of Jerome, to undergo baptism some time before his death in 437 CE.

As stated above, this letter details complaints made by a certain Volusianus, whose name is inserted into the translation above, as he is named by Marcellinus at the outset of the letter and shortly before our passage in section 2. However, Joseph Clair interprets this passage more generally to refer to a group of pagan public officials from Carthage, who are specifically worried about how they can do their jobs and still uphold the non-violent teachings of Christianity, which discourage punishment of enemies (Discerning the Good, p. 81). Indeed, Marcellinus does state slightly prior to our extract that the issues were raised when a group of men (including Marcellinus) were together, and the fact that our extract begins by asserting that it deals with a “common allegation” supports the suggestion that Volusianus acted as a spokesperson for a wider group. The complainant/s had expressed concern that Christianity’s teachings of forgiveness and pacifism could not sustain the commonwealth (res publica; for a discussion of the definition of this term and its use in Augustine’s writings, see the commentary on Letter 138.17). What is translated by Atkins and Dodora as the “ethics of citizenship” (rei publicae moribus), is rendered slightly differently by Joseph Clair as “practices of the commonwealth” (Discerning the Good, p. 80, and for his explanation, p. 81, n. 19). The context of our passage makes relatively clear, however, that what is at issue are principles and actions (and given the particular complainants, especially of those within the empire who hold positions of authority or responsibility) which contravene the pacifistic or non-reactionary precepts of the New Testament, but which are arguably necessary in order to provide security for the empire’s inhabitants and peace within its society. We must remember, as Atkins and Dodoro recall, that the entire correspondence from which the present extract comes was composed between the beginning of September of 411 CE and the end of February 412 CE, only a year after the sack of Rome in 410. The empire was therefore still reeling from these catastrophic events, and feeling suitably fragile as a result. Moreover, the Roman provinces of Europe and the western edge of Africa were going through a period of both military and civil strife due to the migration of Gothic and Vandal tribes (Political Writings, p. 257). The worries that Volusianus and other pagans who occupied positions of authority in the Roman system, and were faced with the reality of having to punish criminals, or knew that the reality of war was likely, are therefore very timely.

Augustine’s response to the issues raised is divided between Letters 137 and 138, both of which respond to them in a slightly different way. A concise summary of Augustine’s answer is provided by Joseph Clair, and unfolds as follows. Augustine begins in Letter 137 by making love the focus of his argument, stating that the health of the commonwealth is best served by obedience to the New Testament injunctions towards love. Letter 138 develops this by arguing that the New Testament teaches that when one is wronged by an enemy, the victim is given the opportunity to reflect upon their loss and consider the motives of the assailant. For instance, if something was stolen, a scenario which is specifically given in the extract from Letter 136 above, the victim should reflect upon what value the goods had for the person who took them. By taking this non-reactionary approach, Augustine suggests the enemy is afforded the opportunity to see the value of higher goods such as trust and unity (fides and concordia), which are essential for a functioning political community. Thus, by extending mercy, the wellbeing of the commonwealth is enhanced (see especially 138.10). However, while this might be a reasonable way to deal with certain crimes, such as theft, it is harder to imagine in cases where one is responsible for protecting the physical security of the commonwealth (what about soldiers or judges, for example?) This question is of course crucial for our passage, which in addition to the issue of theft, singles out the practice of just war. After all, it is one thing to accept loss of one’s own property and take the moral high ground, but another thing entirely to take this attitude with the safety of others. As mentioned above, in the aftermath of the sack of Rome, and the provinces feeling vulnerable and in a state of unrest, this would be a very legitimate worry for Augustine’s questioners. In the latter half of Letter 138, Augustine considers this problem, and discusses punishment and warfare. His first move is to label as “virtues” the “teaching and preaching” of Christ which are challenged in our passage, and then claim that these teachings ultimately seek to foster patentia and beneuolentia (openness and kindness/goodwill). Adoption of these virtues, Augustine argues, will enable those in positions where violence is an option to overcome their desire for revenge, and instead to consider the possibility of wishing good to their enemy rather than harm (see 138.13-14). This said, Augustine is not a total pacifist, and he does recognise that sometimes war is necessary. He therefore asserts that these virtues guide the inward disposition, and ensure that if violence does become necessary to protect others, then at least it will be carried out justly and with benevolence, with some consideration for the wellbeing of the defeated (see Clair, Discerning the Good, p. 82-85).

In 138.16 Augustine answers the criticism made at the end of our extract that the empire is suffering under the Christian emperors: “What am I to reply to the charge that the Roman empire is in a very bad way because of certain Christian emperors?” (the translation is that of Atkins, Political Writings, p. 39). His response is firstly to acknowledge that this statement is very generalising, and as such the complaint is unfounded. For every specific charge brought against a past Christian emperor, Augustine states, he would be able to make similar, or even more serious ones against non-Christian emperors. Rather than the teachings of Christianity, he continues, the fault lies with the individual emperors themselves and their advisors. Indeed, Augustine notes that Rome’s decline was foretold by Roman literature long before the advent of Christianity. He quotes Sallust’s The War with Jugurtha XXXV.10 here, and proceeds also to cite Sallust’s account of the war with Catiline, in which the morality of the Roman people is questioned. It was this which led to Rome’s decline and fall, Augustine concludes, joining here in a tradition of similar arguments made by Christian apologists. Ultimately, the health of the Roman commonwealth was not under threat from the observance of Christian doctrines by those in its highest realms of power (the emperor and his closest advisors), those in other positions of authority, or even regular citizens. Rather, by observing the precepts at the centre of Christ’s teaching, the greater good of the commonwealth is aided, partly because a better example is set to its enemies (even if this is extremely wishful thinking)! On a more local level, however, inhabitants of Rome’s troubled provinces, if they adopted the tenets of Christianity, would foster a society of concord, which Augustine considered absolutely central for success.

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Augustine, Letter 136.2
Author(s) of this publication: Kimberley Fowler
Publishing date: Fri, 03/02/2018 - 11:26
Visited: Fri, 05/24/2019 - 18:56

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