Back to Forum


Augustine our Interlocutor

By Anthony Egan

In an age of populism, political uncertainty and generalised sabre-rattling Augustine of Hippo (whose feast is celebrated on August 28th) offers us – particularly those of us who live and work on Augustine’s continent of birth – a valuable spiritual and intellectual dialogue partner. Despite many differences we may have, particularly his attitudes to women and who might be saved, Augustine feels a lot like our contemporary.

We live in similar times. Augustine lived in a time of social turmoil: an empire in freefall, the rise of barbarism, a crisis of reason. In our times we see similar crises: the hints of a break-up of one global bloc (the European Union), the weakening of another (the United States) through internal political turmoil, nuclear brinkmanship in East Asia, and populist irrationality on every continent. In Africa this past month we have observed a president survive a no-confidence parliamentary vote despite overwhelming evidence that he is manifestly corrupt (South Africa); another president re-elected with a laughable 98.8% of the vote (Rwanda); and an election marred by pre- and post-poll violence and allegations of election fraud (Kenya).

What might we as ethicists learn from Augustine to help us in our theological reflection and praxis?

My sense is that we could do well to reread his great work The City of God. written as apologetic in response to those who saw the collapse of the Roman Empire as the fault of the Christians. By stressing the difference between the Heavenly City and the Human City, Augustine offers believers in difficult times a hope rooted in realism, an ethic for the ‘between times’ in which he – and we – live.

By highlighting the distinction between Heaven and Earth, sacred and historical time, Augustine reminds us that no civilization can be equated with the reign of God. It is God not humanity who inaugurates and fulfils the reign of God; humans merely cooperate in or obstruct it in history. All human institutions contain within themselves the holy and unholy. Human actions either move the process forward – or temporarily delay it.

More than anywhere else, this is manifested in the ethics of public life. At the risk of making Augustine seem like a proto-Hegelian, my sense is that human society moves dialectically. Great social advances that promote democracy, economic justice, gender equality, racial justice and human rights (few of which I suspect Augustine could have envisioned) are brought to a halt, slowed or temporarily reversed by counter-movements like authoritarian populism, neoliberal capitalism, homophobia, sexism and xenophobia. But out of this re-emerge counter-counter-movements that refine and renew positive values. Unlike Hegel – and more akin to Augustine’s vision – there is no ‘end of history’, no perfect Human City. For Augustine, and for Christian ethicists I would suggest, all moral progress is contingent, awaiting final fulfilment in the reign of God.

How then might ethicists, particularly those in Africa, read our recent history?

In South Africa, despite the failure to impeach President Jacob Zuma, we might read the latest events as a positive sign in two respects. First, the organs of democracy have not all been captured by the corrupt. The Constitutional Court, through its independent reading of the Constitution, was able to give the green light for Parliament to vote by secret ballot. Second, a small but significant section of the ruling party voted acording to  their consciences. Ethicists need to build on this by preaching, teaching and writing about constitutionalism, the rule of law and the formation of conscience in public life.

Though the evidence of political repression and pre-election manipulation in Rwanda was considerable and depressing, and the 98.8% vote for President Paul Kagame was highly suspicious, we need to recognise that under Kagame Rwanda’s economy has grown rapidly, considerably reducing levels of poverty and illiteracy. Moreover, though authoritarian, Rwanda has become one of the least corrupt countries in Africa. Not everyone who voted necessarily did so out of fear. Ethicists’ tasks in such a context need to focus on building on the positive developments while presenting the moral case for greater democracy.

Even the Kenyan cases offers elements of hope. Shocking as electoral violence is, in a paradoxical way it is at least a sign that citizens care about democracy and who rules them. (This is in contrast to many of the more stable Western democracies where voter apathy is common). That allegations could be made about electoral fraud (despite a consensus to the contrary by most international election observers) should be seen as a sign of the widespread real and perceived corruption in the country. Ethicists should perhaps focus on exhorting all concerned to fight corruption and to manage political passions in a more peaceful and rational manner.

Augustine’s genius lay in reminding us all that Christians have a duty to live in the Human City with our eyes on the Heavenly City. This is not an ethic of withdrawal into our peaceable little ‘kingdoms’, but one of engagement. Does this mean sometimes getting our hands dirty? Yes. Does this mean we have to sometimes find a compromise between the ideal and the downright awful? I believe it does.

Augustine reminds us that we do not yet live in the reign of God. He tells us to get on and do our best in the world while keeping our eyes on the prize. We cannot as ethicists and Christians avoid it.