The life of the wise man should be social
by Ken Myers
In 1995, Jean Bethke Elshtain gave the Frank M. Covey, Jr., Loyola Lectures in Political Analysis at Loyola University in Chicago. That same year, her five presentations were published by the University of Notre Dame Press under the title Augustine and the Limits of Politics. The first chapter was called “Why Augustine? Why Now?” That was also the title given to an article by Elshtain published in 2003 in the Catholic University Law Review. Below is a passage from this article, which you may download in its entirety here.
“[H]uman beings are inherently social. While created in the image of God, humans are defined by human relationships. The self cannot be free-standing. Social life, however full of ills, must be cherished. Among those social forms, civil life is not simply what sin has brought into the world, but what emerges from our capacity for love, our use of reason, as well as a pervasive lust for domination attendant upon human affairs. Augustine stated, ‘The philosophers hold the view that the life of the wise man should be social; and in this we support them much more heartily.’ Indeed, the City of God, Augustine's way of characterizing that pilgrim band of Christians during their earthly sojourn in and through a community of reconciliation and fellowship that presaged the heavenly kingdom, could never have had ‘its first start . . . if the life of the saints were not social.’ All human beings are citizens of the earthly kingdom, the City of Man, and even in this fallen condition there is a kind of ‘natural likeness’ that forges a bond between humankind. This bond of peace does not suffice to prevent wars, dissensions, cruelty, and misery of all kinds, but we are nonetheless called to membership based on a naturalistic sociality and basic morality available to all rational creatures. A unity in plurality pushes towards harmony; but the sin of division, with its origins in pride and willfulness, drives us apart.
“Yet, it is love of friendship that lies at the root of what might be called Augustine’s ‘practical philosophy,’ which involves his history, ethics, and social and political theories. Pinioned between alienation and affection, human beings — those ‘cracked pot[s]’ — are caught in the tragedy of alienation but glued by love. Human sociality is innate, and for Augustine, the question is not whether humans should be social or whether they should trust enough to love. Instead, the question is: ‘What shall I love and how shall I love it?’ Augustine’s complex ethical theory understands that political life is one form that human social and ethical life assumes. Humans are frequently contained within society and are continually seeking the consolation of others. For Augustine, society is a species of friendship, and friendship is a moral union in and through which human beings strive for a shared good. Augustine’s central categories, including the categories of war and peace, are in the form of a relation of one sort or another. And the more humans are united at all levels in a bond of peace, the closer they come to achieving the good at which they aim and at which God intends.
“For Augustine, neighborliness and reciprocity emerge from ties that bind, beginning with familial bonds and extending from these particular relations outward; the filaments of affection must not stop at the portal to the domus. Augustine writes:
“‘The aim was that one man should not combine many relationships in his one self, but that those connections should be separated and spread among individuals, and that in this way they should help to bind social life more effectively by involving in their plurality a plurality of persons.’
“The social tie is not ‘confined to a small group’ but extends ‘more widely to . . . a large number with the multiplying links of kinship. The importance of plurality, of the many emerging from a unique one — for God began as a singular form — cannot be underestimated in Augustine’s work. Augustine notably fuses together into a single frame human uniqueness and individuality with sociality and plurality. Bonds of affection tied human beings from the start; bonds of kinship and affection bound them further. These relationships became dispersed, eventually encompassing the entire globe.”