Politics at the End of the World

Onsi Kamel
Onsi A. Kamel is the editor-in-chief of the Davenant Press. He lives in Chicago with his wife and daughter.

In contrast to the lives of all other animals, human life entails the possibility of its negation. Suicide is a perennial human possibility. We tend to think of suicide as resulting from tragic but ultimately irrational conditions, like mental illness. No doubt this is often the case. But Cicero argues in his Tusculan Disputations that suicide can be rational in conditions of extreme suffering. What assumptions about the nature of human flourishing and happiness drive Cicero to this disturbing conclusion? Might we discover, to our horror, that we share them?

At a time of pestilence-induced mass death, economic collapse, and falling life expectancy; at a time when more people are committing suicide and contemplating committing suicide, and when society itself seems intent on self-destruction, we are driven to ask, Why not, like rational stoics, die? And that question, it turns out, leads to another: In what does the happy life consist?

St. Augustine asked this question in circumstances similar to ours. He was writing after the end of a world—the sack of Rome in AD 410. He took up his pen both to rebut pagans who blamed Christianity for Rome’s demise and to reflect on human happiness—that is, on eudaimonia, a Greek word often translated as beatus in Latin: blessed. In what does divine life consist, the worthwhile and rich life, the life that really is life?

Why not, like rational stoics, die?

This era in Augustine’s life produced two texts that speak to our time particularly well: his Letter 155 to Macedonius and book 19 of the City of God Against the Pagans. In them, Augustine sets forth his vision of the nature of blessedness (or happiness)—of the blessed person, the blessed people, and the blessed ruler.

Augustine’s account is ever relevant and, perhaps, uniquely unpopular in our time. He offers little that can be applied politically, and what he does offer by way of political advice is deeply offensive to American sensibilities. Perhaps even less fashionably, he is uninterested in identifying or fixing anything “structural.” Thus both those who wish to desacralize society so as to render politics ultimate and those who wish to sacralize society so as to render political acts pious will be frustrated. But his is the necessary account for a time like ours, when humanity’s incapacity to secure earthly comforts, stave off earthly pains, and uphold earthly justice has been mercilessly exposed. Our eyes have been opened to our nakedness; St. Augustine would see us clothed in white robes (Revelation 7).

Augustine begins his letter to Macedonius, Roman vicarius (provincial deputy) of Africa, where we began: with the question of suicide. It seems like an odd place to begin. But the context makes sense: the destruction of Rome by the Visigoths in 410. The question Augustine is implicitly addressing is this: Should we not prefer to die rather than live in a world without Rome, without the possibility of earthly happiness? To answer no, Augustine must show that the Christian statesman—the Christian Roman—finds himself in a position entirely different, and with a hope entirely different, than the pagan Romans, even the wisest of them.

The philosophers, Augustine explains in Letter 155, foolishly sought “to create the life of happiness for themselves, and thought it was something they could achieve rather than receive.” And in City of God, he says that some, like Varro, claimed that happiness/blessedness had both a material and immaterial component, consisting in goods of both “the soul and the body.” Cicero even argued that, by pursuing wisdom and detaching the soul from the pleasures of the flesh, one could attain a state “resembling heavenly life” in its tranquility. But, Augustine shows, these accounts drove the philosophers to absurdities. Cicero discusses suicide in book 5 of his Tusculan Disputations, after he has investigated the nature of happiness. The deaf, he says, should take pleasure in sight, the blind in hearing; they have much still to enjoy. But what of one deaf and blind and subject to excruciating chronic pain? Or what, we might wonder, of one suffering unbearably under the suffocating listlessness and isolation that attend this pandemic? “There is a retreat at hand; death is that retreat, a shelter where we shall forever be insensible,” says Cicero.

Both Varro and Cicero, then, concede that physical torment could be so horrible as to warrant ending one’s “blessed state” by suicide. They would seek peace in death, but death will not provide it. “Something that has peace is not nothing; indeed, it is greater than something that is restless. For restlessness generates one conflicting passion after another, whereas peace has the constancy that is the most conspicuous characteristic of Being. So the will’s desire for death is not a desire for nonexistence but a desire for peace. When someone wrongly believes that he will not exist, he desires by nature to be at peace; that is, he desires to exist in a higher degree.” The philosophers desire peace, but they mistakenly believe they can achieve it by pursuing nonexistence.

“Something that has peace is not nothing; indeed, it is greater than something that is restless. For restlessness generates one conflicting passion after another, whereas peace has the constancy that is the most conspicuous characteristic of Being.” —Augustine

Summarizing his view of these philosophers, Augustine wrote, “Weighed down by the burden of their corruptible flesh, they still wanted to be authors of their own blessedness.” The root of philosophical suicide is, Augustine argues, a kind of pride: the philosophers attempt to secure their own happiness, but they fail. Happiness cannot consist in things that may change, things that may pass away: if it could, it would not be happiness, because we desire not mere joy but perpetual joy. Indeed, a precarious happiness, Augustine and the Stoics both recognized, was no happiness at all. But Augustine saw to the heart of the matter: all earthly happiness is precarious.

If blessedness cannot be a state of being dependent on this body of death, it does not follow that it cannot exist. Instead, argues Augustine, blessedness will exist for those who are pious—but only in eternity. While this claim may come across as fanciful escapism or an abdication of political responsibility, it actually frees individuals to reckon honestly with the world as it is while simultaneously persevering within it. As Augustine writes in City of God, this life is to be endured, not enjoyed, for “who . . . can find words to portray the miseries of this life?” And in his letter he says that our task is to be “blessed in hope,” to live in such a way that eternal life is our final end: “We face evils bravely, relying on sound purpose together with divine assistance; while we rejoice in God’s faithful promise of . . . goods that will last forever.”

In addition to allowing us to reckon honestly with the miseries that beset us on all sides, Augustine’s account of blessedness also transforms how individuals approach what goods they do attain in life. No longer needing earthly goods for our doomed attempt to secure this-worldly blessedness, we are freed to practice virtue—that is, as he says in City of God, to make “good use of both goods and evils . . . to the end where our peace will be so unsurpassed that it could not possibly be better or greater.” Because the days are evil, true blessedness consists in eternal life, and each man ought to redeem his time in hope, enduring the vagaries of earthly existence while purposing both goods and evils to eternal felicity.

We desire not mere joy but perpetual joy.

But if earthly misery reveals the necessarily eternal nature of beatitude for individuals, what reveals the truth about peoples, about nations? There are several problems with collective life: misunderstandings, dissensions, wars and rumors of war, and fear for the well-being of loved ones. Most striking in our context, though, is Augustine’s discussion of justice—or, rather, of its difficulty. Justice and the courts to mete it out are necessary, as are wise judges. No matter how peaceful and well-ordered the society, judgment is necessary. And yet, Augustine continues, the verdicts our judges render are “miserable” and “lamentable.” Why? “Those who judge obviously cannot see into the consciences of those whom they judge.” Human finitude, our ignorance and incapacity, renders justice impossible. Still, it is necessary. Human society is thus consigned to a lamentable state, needing a justice it can never attain.

What hope for society can there be, what hope for a people? It’s a pointed question, and it’s one that Macedonius is concerned with. He wanted happiness, not just for himself, but for the Roman people—who were, during the time he was friends with Augustine, plunged into ruin. “Because we know you love the Republic,” Augustine writes, “see how clear it is in those sacred books that the human being is happy from the same source as the city.” In other words, “Blessed is the people whose God is the Lord” (Psalm 144). For the society as for the individual, earthly goods should be directed to heavenly ends: we are on our way to the heavenly city, and the virtue that carries us through is hope.

Of course, only Christians can or will do this: rest in hope, pursue eternal goods. Natural man pursues natural goods and natural ends. There is, then, a bifurcation in the people: those on pilgrimage to the heavenly city will use earthly goods to get there, while those who belong to the earthly city will, if they have some semblance of virtue, use earthly goods to make their home here.

“Because we know you love the Republic,” Augustine writes, “see how clear it is in those sacred books that the human being is happy from the same source as the city.”

Augustine is not, however, content to leave a society so divided. “Let us desire this”—this eternal happiness that consists in having the true God as our Lord—“for ourselves; let us desire it for the city of which we are citizens.” We can’t be content to leave our fellow men behind. To desire the eternal good of one’s fellows is the Christianized archetype of the Roman civic-mindedness Macedonius embodied.

And this is where Augustine’s account of blessed rule comes to the fore. Rulers, he claims, must recognize that the blessedness of their people is their responsibility. Just as rulers ought to secure earthly goods and earthly justice, they ought also to encourage their people to put those goods toward heavenly ends. Rulers must help their subjects recognize that their true blessedness consists in the pursuit of eternal life. Augustine argues that Macedonius’s personal pursuit of blessedness will be worthless if his only aims are “allowing human beings to suffer no unjust hardship in the flesh; [or] if you think it is no concern of yours to what purpose they put the peace you struggle to provide them.” Rather, Macedonius must use his “secular position of honor” to “inspire and lead” his subjects to worship God by living “an exemplary religious life and through the devotion [he shows] to their interests.”

Notice, though, that Augustine does not demand Macedonius’s subordination to the church, as on an integralist model of Church-state relations; nor must Macedonius force his subjects to believe in any particular way by the sword; rather, Macedonius possesses an independent charge from God to care for his subjects by example and dedication to their well-being, including their eternal well-being. In short, obeying God entails loving one’s neighbor, and love of neighbor requires pointing the way to God. Piety is a prerequisite of right rule.

It is easy for Americans acclimated to the Jeffersonian interpretation of church-state relations to accept St. Augustine’s argument at the level of persons, and perhaps even at the level of peoples; but we balk at his instructions to rulers. To direct people to some “final end” determined by the ruler evinces an astonishing arrogance, we protest.

And yet, the greatest leaders of our nation’s past tell against our protestations, for they have always done precisely what St. Augustine tells Macedonius to do—and we love them for it to this day. Indeed, until the past few decades, our leaders always understood that moments of great national crisis demanded that we fix our eyes on God. The line between encouraging genuine national dedication to God and a bastardized civil religion is admittedly thin, as Augustine himself recognized; but abuse negates neither right use nor the necessity of facing reality squarely.

In his second inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln famously interpreted the Civil War as an act in a divinely orchestrated judgment on our nation’s wickedness: “If God wills that [war] continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said: ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’” Likewise, as the Second World War broke out, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1939 State of the Union address emphasized that religion is the indispensable institution which alone secures peace: “Religion . . . by teaching man his relationship to God, gives the individual a sense of his own dignity.” Thus “any society that relegates religion . . . to the background can find no place within it for the ideals of the Prince of Peace.” And in his prayer on D-Day, Roosevelt claimed World War II was “a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilization.” He prayed that God would receive the souls of the dead into his kingdom. He prayed that the nation would “rededicate” itself “in renewed faith in Thee”: “As we rise each new day, and again when each day is spent, let words of prayer be on our lips, invoking Thy help to our efforts.”

Both Lincoln and FDR understood that moments of tragedy reveal human frailty, the world’s evils, and our ultimate dependence on God. And both, as good rulers, used these evils for their peoples’ good: to turn them toward their final and most reliable good.

Even if one finds their rhetoric distasteful or doubts their sincerity, what is the alternative? When the goods of this life fail, and they must, what does a man have but God? When a people’s dreams of material prosperity die and their justice is revealed to be a sham, what hope have they but God? When a people’s leaders refuse to point them Godward, they leave a people unable to cope with the realities of this world. Indeed, our nation has headed toward self-immolation in response to COVID and state-sanctioned injustice alike precisely because God has not been our hope; as a people, we have nothing to live for.

“Grant us grace always to live in such a state that . . . living and dying, we may be thine.” —Augustine

Too often, those who have placed their trust in earthly beatitude are left unable to reckon with its loss, those who have placed it in science cannot face its inability to save every life, and those who have placed it in earthly justice have been driven to injustice. COVID-related conspiracy-mongering, shrill invocations of “science,” and orgiastic rioting are produced by the same nihilism: our idols have been smashed, and we have been left godless.

It is precisely at this moment that we must pray for ears to hear Augustine’s admonishment. As Cicero’s argument for suicide recognizes, Fortuna is a cruel mistress, and as the world around us crumbles, her malevolence is made manifest. But St. Augustine reminds us that she is no longer our mistress, that her whims no longer rule us. We have been promised an inheritance not made with human hands. Our task—as individuals, as a people, and as rulers in our various capacities—is to recall this every morning, to repeat it every night: “Grant us grace always to live in such a state that . . . living and dying, we may be thine.”