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Biden’s Augustinian Call for Concord

Michael Lamb
Michael Lamb
Michael Lamb is the executive director of the Program for Leadership and Character and Assistant Professor of Politics, Ethics, and Interdisciplinary Humanities at Wake Forest University. He has written previously on Augustine’s vision of the commonwealth, and he is the author of A Commonwealth of Hope: Augustine’s Political Thought, forthcoming with Princeton University Press.

On the steps of the US Capitol, the site of a violent attack two weeks earlier, President Joseph R. Biden tried to unite a divided nation.

In an inaugural address focused on unity, Biden cited a passage from St. Augustine, quoting his vision of a “people” as “a multitude defined by the common objects of their love.” Biden invited citizens to consider “the common objects we as Americans love”: “Opportunity, security, liberty, dignity, respect, honor and yes, truth.”

President Biden’s Augustinian invocation was a powerful appeal to unity in a moment of deep division. It takes on even more meaning when we examine what Augustine meant in his own context.

A Catholic bishop from North Africa during the decline of the Roman Empire, Augustine is known as the great theologian of love. For Augustine, love is the animating force of human life, the spring of all emotion and action. Whether we are virtuous or vicious, he argues, depends on how we “order” our loves. To understand the character of a person or a people, “we have only to examine what it loves.”

President Biden’s Augustinian invocation was a powerful appeal to unity in a moment of deep division. It takes on even more meaning when we examine what Augustine meant in his own context.

According to Augustine, Rome loved glory, which fueled a “lust for domination” that led them to conquer enemies to prove their power. Their violence reflected disordered love. Swollen with pride, they were more concerned with increasing their glory through domination than loving their neighbors through justice and sacrifice.

Augustine’s answer is to encourage human beings to order their loves ultimately to God, not to self. Some critics have suggested that Biden’s speech neglected this aspect of Augustine’s vision. On their view, Augustine believes God is the only common good that can unite a “true commonwealth.”

Yet, while Augustine affirms that the “City of God” transcends any earthly kingdom and sets the standard of “true justice,” he does not dismiss the importance of earthly commonwealths or the goods they secure in this life. And he rejects the idea that politics necessarily requires theological consensus. Instead, he encourages citizens—of different religions, cultures, and creeds—to unite around common objects of love in the commonwealth. Members of both the “earthly” and “heavenly” cities, he argues, can “make common use of those things which are necessary to this mortal life,” even as they direct them to different ultimate ends.

For Augustine, the most important of these temporal goods is peace: “For peace is so great a good that, even in the sphere of earthly and mortal affairs, we hear no word more thankfully, and nothing is desired with greater longing: in short, it is not possible to find anything better.”

 

In emphasizing peace, Augustine does not ask citizens simply to hold hands and get along. His vision of the “good things appropriate to this life” is more rigorous and robust. It includes “temporal peace . . . consisting in bodily health and soundness, and the society of one’s own kind; and all things necessary for the preservation and recovery of this peace,” such as “breathable air, drinkable water, and whatever the body requires to feed, clothe, shelter, heal or adorn it.” In the midst of a global pandemic, when social division, climate change, and economic insecurity threaten the lives and livelihoods of Americans, Augustine’s focus on tangible goods—food, housing, health care, and clean air and water—highlights what is needed to sustain a healthy body politic.

Augustine also recognizes that laws, norms, and institutions are necessary to secure civic peace, but he does not see peace as the mere absence of conflict or violence. Rather, he affirms what another Augustinian, Martin Luther King Jr., calls a “positive peace,” the peace of civic friendship born of justice and mutual affection. “The order of this concord,” Augustine writes, “is, first, that a man should harm no one, and, second, that he should do good to all, so far as he can.”

Yet Augustine is not naïve or sentimental. He knows that civic peace is fragile and that friendship cannot guarantee complete agreement on every moral or political matter. Even when we can unite around common objects in theory, we may disagree about how best to realize them in practice. Conflict and contestation are part of the political condition and often necessary to challenge injustice and hold power accountable. Politics, therefore, should not seek a totalizing uniformity that dominates those who are different, but a humble harmony that gives justice to all, welcomes others into community, and forges unity in plurality.

Politics should not seek a totalizing uniformity that dominates those who are different, but a humble harmony that gives justice to all, welcomes others into community, and forges unity in plurality.

Here, Augustine’s analogy of “concord” is apt. He cites Cicero’s comparison of civic peace to musical harmony, made possible by the union of diverse voices: “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.”

This vision of concord is as relevant in contemporary America as it was in ancient Rome. Augustine’s questions are ours: What objects of love will bring us into harmony? Will we, like Rome, lust for glory and domination, or will we embody the love that does justice and secures unity amid plurality? Will we sustain civic peace in the midst of deep difference, or will we allow our disagreements, real as they are, to finally sever our bonds of affection?

How we answer may determine whether we can sustain a commonwealth at all.