I have recently learned of an interesting doctrine articulated by St. Augustine in one of his letters. The letter in question is Epistula 138, and I should describe briefly its context. One of Augustine’s friends was a pagan senator in Rome named Volusian; his mother happened to be a Christian, but he was not. The sack of Rome by Alaric in 410 A.D. had been a deeply shocking event for everyone in the Roman world, no matter what their religion was. There was very much an atmosphere of despair. People wondered how such a thing could have happened to what seemed the strongest military state in the world.
I do not often wade into theological waters, but it seems to me that this doctrine of Augustine’s has some relevance and applicability to our present social conditions. The question that Volusian put to Augustine was this: could it be true that Christianity’s alleged ethic of “turn thy cheek” was harmful to the fighting spirit of the Roman state? Was it not true that the Christian writings counseled a timid ethic of love and forbearance? Augustine skillfully argued that there was nothing in Christian doctrine that prevented an individual or a state from engaging in conflict to take corrective action against enemies. He used the Latin word misericorditer as part of his explanation; the word means “with pity,” or “with compassion.” This subtle theologian proposed that it was actually in the interests of our enemies that their behavior be corrected. Those who were mired in evil and corruption often could not see it; they needed to be shown the correct way if their behavior was crossing all acceptable human conduct. In other words, he seemed to be saying, there was such a thing as a just conflict, and a good fight.
He first reminds us that a righteous man should be prepared to tolerate, up to a point, injury from others:
Wherefore a righteous and pious man ought to be prepared to endure with patience injury from those whom he desires to make good, so that the number of good men may be increased, instead of himself being added, by retaliation of injury, to the number of wicked men. [II.12]
But at the same time, there were limits to how much injury or offense one can take. At some point, stern, corrective action needed to be taken. The phrase he uses (or the translator here uses) is “benevolent severity.” A stern father must on occasion use such benevolent severity when all other methods of reasonable persuasion have failed:
These precepts concerning patience ought to be always retained in the habitual discipline of the heart, and the benevolence which prevents the recompensing of evil for evil must be always fully cherished in the disposition. At the same time, many things must be done in correcting with a certain benevolent severity, even against their own wishes, men whose welfare rather than their wishes it is our duty to consult and the Christian Scriptures have most unambiguously commended this virtue in a magistrate. For in the correction of a son, even with some sternness, there is assuredly no diminution of a father’s love; yet, in the correction, that is done which is received with reluctance and pain by one whom it seems necessary to heal by pain.
And finally Augustine comes to the heart of the matter, and the implications of his doctrine for society. When someone has transgressed all reasonable boundaries, and has surrendered himself to evil and moral corruption, then decisive action needs to be taken to correct the problem. Freedom should not be confused with license; and he who abuses the freedoms his society gives him must be firmly shown the error of his ways. The “foundations of virtue” cannot be allowed to become weakened in a healthy society. This long quote summarizes what he means:
For the person from whom is taken away the freedom which he abuses in doing wrong is vanquished with benefit to himself; since nothing is more truly a misfortune than that good fortune of offenders, by which pernicious impunity is maintained, and the evil disposition, like an enemy within the man, is strengthened. But the perverse and froward hearts of men think human affairs are prosperous when men are concerned about magnificent mansions, and indifferent to the ruin of souls; when mighty theatres are built up, and the foundations of virtue are undermined; when the madness of extravagance is highly esteemed, and works of mercy are scorned; when, out of the wealth and affluence of rich men, luxurious provision is made for actors, and the poor are grudged the necessaries of life; when that God who, by the public declarations of His doctrine, protests against public vice, is blasphemed by impious communities, which demand gods of such character that even those theatrical representations which bring disgrace to both body and soul are fitly performed in honour of them.
If God permit these things to prevail, He is in that permission showing more grievous displeasure: if He leave these crimes unpunished, such impunity is a more terrible judgment. When, on the other hand, He overthrows the props of vice, and reduces to poverty those lusts which were nursed by plenty, He afflicts in mercy. And in mercy, also, if such a thing were possible, even wars might be waged by the good, in order that, by bringing under the yoke the unbridled lusts of men, those vices might be abolished which ought, under a just government, to be either extirpated or suppressed.
The meaning of these words, of course, may be open to varying interpretations. But it seems to me that Augustine is reminding us that moral corruption and decay can have severe consequences. Clearly he saw the military weakness of the Roman state more a result of moral corruption, than a result of the alleged subversiveness of Christian doctrine. I encourage readers to read the full text of his letter. The translations above are not my own; they were taken from a translation which can be found here.
What is appealing about Augustine’s doctrine is that it offers a prescription for action. Evil can and should be resisted. We must not hide under rocks or behind trees and pretend that what we are seeing is something different from what we are seeing. Other Churchmen of his era were not as optimistic; they had surrendered themselves to what looks very much like despair. One of the best examples of this mentality is Salvian, who was born around 400 A.D. His chief work is De gubernatione Dei, or On the Government of God. The picture he paints in his book is an unrelentingly gloomy one. As Salvian saw things, Rome was already too far gone to rehabilitate. He puts the blame for Rome’s military defeats squarely on the shoulders of the degenerate Romans: as he saw it, their disasters were caused by their own debilitating political and moral corruption. There is some truth in this harsh indictment.
Salvian contrasts the supposed barbaric “virtue” of the Germans, Alans, and Huns, with the Romans’ effete taste for luxury and physical pleasure. Rome’s barbarian enemies, he says, may have been uncouth brutes, but at least the Germans and Huns did not oppress their poor or live in luxurious sin. The barbarians were fit, thin, and brave, while the Romans had become fat, weak, and corrupt. The Saxons and Vandals may have been treacherous, but their people were chaste in comparison with the wealthy denizens of Rome’s urban centers. This, at any rate, is how Salvian saw things. Was he right?
We must always take the sermons of theologians with a grain of salt; they are looking at the world from a certain perspective, and everything they see tends to confirm that perspective. There was much corruption in his age, but one could equally say that there was a patient, silent majority that went about its business, and took care of its responsibilities, as best it could. He undoubtedly exaggerates the alleged moral virtues of the barbarians; the student of history knows that at all times and in every place, man tends to sin within his means and abilities. If the barbarians were “chaste,” it was only because they were not yet rich enough to experiment with corruption. Yet Salvian’s picture offers us a window on the mood of his era. His despair and anguish were real, even if he interpreted events through the lens of his own education and training.
Read more in On Duties: