A Talk Given at the American Catholic Philosophical Association (November, 2018)
The notion of “a people” is central to American self-understanding. The Declaration of Independence was written to explain why it was necessary for ‘one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another”, and declares that it is the right of the People to abolish old and institute new forms of government. The Constitution faithfully proclaims itself as an act of “We, the People”, while the Bill of Rights considers the People the possessors of many rights retained under it. But what makes a people? Is the term more than just a rhetorical flourish used by politicians? Are we still a people? How are we to judge?
In the City of God, St. Augustine reflects on this question, looking to the Roman authors, Sallust and Cicero, who considered deeply the question of what held their people together. He ends up rejecting the idea that justice is essential in favor of the idea that it is love which binds. In this paper, I want to explore his treatment of this question, then compare his account with that of Livy, who seems to incorporate the views of all Sallust, Cicero, and Augustine.
Augustine first raised the question, “What makes a people?” in Book II, when summarizing a portion of Cicero’s dialogue, De Republica. Augustine dedicated Book II to showing that Rome had great difficulties long before Christianity arose to prominence. The pagan enemies of the Christians blamed the sack of Rome in 410 on the ban on the worship of the ancient gods who been Rome’s protectors and the source of Rome’s glory. Augustine struck back by blaming the moral collapse of the Roman people on the licentious poetic and religious representations of the gods themselves. As Augustine knew from his own youth, the religious celebrations presented examples of corruption that exerted great influence on the morals of society. Leading first century BC Roman authors, such as historians Sallust and statesman/philosopher Cicero, blamed the civil bloodshed that dominated their lives on the moral corruption of society. Augustine argues that they should have realized the Roman gods were even more fundamentally to blame.
As summarized by Augustine, Sallust saw that civil bloodshed began with the rise and fall of the Gracchi brothers in the latter part of the second century B.C. Sallust did not think the class divisions between the Senatorial patricians and the common plebians began with the Gracchi; rather they were present from the very beginning of the Republic. Animosity between the classes was held in check, not because the ancient Romans by and large were better than their descendants, but through the great personal virtue of extraordinary Roman leaders coupled with the continual fear of foreign assault. The destruction of Carthage (146 BC) freed the Romans from external enemies, and brought in wealth that corrupted even the great men. Like his favorite Greek author, Thucydides, Sallust concluded that, with opposition removed, the natural animosity of the classes was given free rein.
As reported by Augustine, Cicero seems to have had a more idealistic view of the Roman founding. The main character of his dialogue is the very Scipio Aemelianus who finally destroyed Carthage. Scipio expresses the foundational problem of adversial classes of society, but thinks that a real polity achieves more than just an uneasy truce among natural enemies.
When the highest, lowest and, between them, the intermediate orders of society are balanced by reason as though they were [musical] voices, the city may embody a consonance blended of quite dissimilar elements. What musicians call harmony in singing is concord in the city, which is the most artful and best bond of security in the commonwealth, and which, without justice, cannot be secured at all.
Justice allows for concord in action, and a real union in being. Cicero has Scipio argue that such unity is implicit in the very meaning of “ResPublica”, which presupposes the existence of a people. Scipio defines the term as “an assembly united in fellowship by common agreement as to what is right and by a community of interest.” Without an agreement about what is just, as without a community of interests, there is no united multitude, no people, and no republic or commonwealth. Cicero seems to have believed that the strength of ancient Rome derived in large part from its common sense of what is just. Licentious moral corruption destroyed that common commitment to justice, and so destroyed the very people that had won such an empire:
Morals have perished from the want of great men; and we must not only be held accountable for so great an evil: we must, indeed, plead our cause as though charged with a capital offense. For it is because of our vices, and not through any mischance, that we now retain only the name of the commonwealth that we long ago lost in fact.
Augustine seems to agree that the commonwealth had been lost in Cicero’s time, but suggests that, in looking back, Cicero idealistically nostalgiac for a Rome that never existed:
Those who praise it should consider whether true justice flourished in it even in the ancient days of men and morals, or whether perhaps even then it was not rather a colored picture than a moral reality.
He finishes II.21 by saying that it was not the time to challenge Cicero on this topic. He promised that “in due course” “if God wills it” he would revert to the topic prove what he only suggests here. Ten years would elapse before he fulfilled that promise. Had it not been for this promise, the reader of his works would definitely have considered its reemergence in Book XIX.21 as an egregious example of Augustine’s tendency to diverge on to tangents. Even with his assurance that he is “now [at] the place where, as I promised…, I shall demonstrate that…there never was a Roman commonwealth,” the reader would be right to puzzle over why this is the right place.
Book XIX begins the portion of the work dedicated to comparing the different ends of the two cities. Augustine first argues that happiness, which all pagan philosophies and societies aimed at, cannot really be attained in this life. Neither the goods we can achieve personally, nor the goods we find in friendship and society, should be called “goods” rather than miseries. Only the City of God can afford to recognize the sad realities of this life, because it can find happiness in the hope of eternal life. Augustine then transitions to a marvelous discussion (ten chapters worth) on peace. Augustine treats peace as much more than simply the absence of immediate warfare. Peace, which he defines as “tranquillity of order”, is itself a cosmological good found at every level of created existence. Consequently, peace is a positive end, and the proper end of societies, corresponding to happiness as the end of individuals. Even societies such as bands of robbers and households of masters and slaves value and enjoy some real kind of peace.
Having established this, Augustine feels ready to formally attack Cicero’s definition of a people. A common agreement about what is just is not possible among a multitude of persons who are not themselves just and have no understanding of what justice really is. But those who worship demons, as Augustine has argued the Romans always did, can neither understand nor bring about what is really just.Their ruling passions corrupt their understanding of the just. Augustine reveals that in his dialogue, Cicero himself sought to justify Rome’s subjugation of all the Mediterranean peoples. Servitude is good for some men, Cicero said, as the rule of God is beneficial for all, as is that of the soul over the body, and reason over the passionate parts of man. Augustine insists that all these examples are connected. If God does not rule the man, neither will he be able to rule himself. Injustice is the natural consequence of such internal disorder, in individuals and, consequently, within a whole multitude. Where injustice rules, class strife is inevitable, and all that can really unite the multitude is an uneasy sense of the need for peace.
Augustine believes that Cicero’s idealistic definition of a people is realized in the City of God. It is truly a people united by common sense of right and of interest. The common sense of right is received from God Himself, and is maintained by a true though imperfect virtue of justice. The interior passions which wrecked every effort to build a pagan city without injustice are not absent from the people of God, but revelation corrects them at every turn, while the grace of God works in the Church to strengthen in all the warlike virtues necessary before the final glory and to raise up generation after generation of heroic examples. The City itself is “His most wonderful and best sacrifice and…celebrates the mystery of this sacrifice in [its] offerings.” “Thus justice is found where the one supreme God rules an obedient City according to His grace, so that it sacrifices to none but Him; and where, in consequence, the soul rules the body…and the reason faithfully rules the vices in lawful order.”
Augustine rejects Cicero’s definition, at least as applied to simply temporal societies. But he doesn’t agree with Sallust either. Pagan societies have a real unity, but it is a unity of love, rather than justice. . Augustine proposes defining a people as “an assembled multitude of rational creatures bound together by a common agreement as to the objects of their love….Then it is not absurd to call it a ‘people’, no matter what the objects of its love may be.” In a way reminiscent of Plato’s account of different societies in Book VIII of the Republic, Augustine is suggesting that a people is united around a common vision of the good (in Plato, honor, wealth, freedom). This, he says, determines the moral character of the people: “Clearly however, the better the objects of this agreement,the better the people; and the worse the objects, the worse the people.”
In the light of this, Augustine is able to say that the Romans were, in the beginning, really a people, that the character of that people fundamentally changed through history, and that it was destroyed by the civil wars, but was reconstituted anew as people under Imperial rule. For every people, its peculiar kind of peace is an object of love, though that peace may be loved primarily as a means for a more profound object of love. In Book II, Augustine put in the mouths of his contemporary opponents the shameful character of their common love: “Only let [the Empire] stand, only let it flourish with abundant treasures, glorious in victory or – which is better – secure in peace, and what do we care? What is of more concern to us is that a man’s wealth should be always increasing for the support of his daily pleasure, and that the stronger may thereby be able to subject weaker men to themselves.” (The entire passage, of which this is a small portion, must be heartbreakingly familiar to us men of the 21st century.)
A corollary of this line of reasoning, and perhaps the reason Augustine waited until Book XIX to critique Cicero’s definition, is that, since every real people has a real good – peace – that they love, this good can also be loved by the people of God. “A people estranged from God must be wretched; yet even such a people as this loves a peace of its own, which is not be despised….For the time being it is advantageous to us also this people should have such peace in this life; for, while the two cities are intermingled, we also make use of the peace of Babylon.” This allows the two cities to exist in a political relationship, though, because the city of man loves peace for the sake of this life’s pleasure, the city of God must remain merely as resident aliens. (This can change if the temporal city will explicitly order itself to the eternal city.)
Livy, with whom Augustine was also very familiar, presents an understanding of Roman unity similar to that of Augustine. Livy, writing during the reign of the first Emperor, looked back to the examples of Rome’s founding less for moral lessons than for comfort. Like Sallust and Cicero, he believed concord was the great problem facing the early Roman Republic. He agreed with Sallust that great leaders and the fear of the enemies that encircled them and constantly threatened them was crucial for Rome’s unity. He portrays one of those great men, the senator and savior of Rome, Cincinnatus, crying out, “By some mysterious fate, our gods favor us more in war than in peace.”
But Livy, like Augustine, identified love as the deepest bond holding together classes always in danger of war. Livy believed the monarchy prepared the Romans for union, for a time when they would need to shoulder the responsibilities which the blessings of liberty demanded. During the monarchy, plebeians and patricians developed a love for the place where they were able to live happy family lives.
What would happen to them when they won immunity if not liberty under the sacred protection of asylum? Uncowed by the absolute power of the king, they would have been stirred up by tribunician agitation and would have begun battling with the senators in a city not their own, before they became united in spirit by commitment to wives and children and by love for the soil – a love which takes a long time to develop. The nation not yet grown up would have been torn apart by dissension. But as it was, a calm and moderate exercise of governmental authority fostered and nourished it so that when it matured and grew strong, it was able to enjoy the excellent fruits of liberty. [II.1]
Livy goes further than Sallust or Augustine, incorporating something of Cicero’s notion. Because all Romans loved Rome, they remained committed to their common life long enough to allow a common sense of justice to develop. Religion played a prominent role, for the Romans, through reverence for the gods, held their oaths sacred, and so the plebians would not simply riot. Yet Livy recounts how the plebians, through dramatic decisions like secession, were able to wrest from the senate the “freedom and dignity” under law which they demanded. When push came to shove, the Senate bowed to the preeminent need for concord between the classes. It knew that concord between the classes gave Rome the strength to overcome the world. In the culminating book of his first Pentad, Livy shows a unified Rome emerging victorious from its death struggle with Veii, recounts Roman resiliency in beating back the fierce but wild Gauls after their sack of the City, and describes the Romans formally recommitting themselves to their homeland under the leadership of Camillus. Under such heroic leaders, a common love of the Roman soil and way of life bound together a people that, through a just application of law, could benefit from the full participation of patrician leadership and plebian strength.
I hope these reflections not only help us to understand Augustine on this point, but might be of some service to our current troubles. America was the offspring of both classical political thought and the Enlightenment. Thomas Jefferson attributed the ideas embodied in Declaration to Aristotle and Cicero, as well as Locke and Algernon Sydney. Madison’s Federalist 10, which might seem to suggest domestic tranquillity can be maintained without real union, is balanced by John Jay’s Federalist 2, in which he argues along Livyian and Augustinian lines that Americans are single people united by ties of blood, culture, opinions, customs, and common action:
With equal pleasure I have as often taken notice that Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people — a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs, and who, by their joint counsels, arms, and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established general liberty and independence.
This country and this people seem to have been made for each other, and it appears as if it was the design of Providence, that an inheritance so proper and convenient for a band of brethren, united to each other by the strongest ties, should never be split into a number of unsocial, jealous, and alien sovereignties.
Lincoln, in his First Inaugural, called on this deep unity to try to prevent a civil war.
I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
Lincoln’s appeal fell on deaf ears, and the war came. Should such a catastrophe threaten us again, let us not forget the closing words of his second inaugural:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.