Skip to comments.A Christmas Meditation: St. Augustine on the National Question
Posted on 12/23/2001 9:21:38 PM PST by ouroboros
By Chilton Williamson Jr.
Keep order in space,
And order in time,
For disorder is chaos,
And chaos is crime.
This Christmas Eve, I will be attending mass at my parish church, St. Laurence OToole in Laramie, Wyoming.
Our parish is one of those big enough to sustain Perpetual, round-the-clock, Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, a practice encouraged in the Roman Catholic Church, believing as we do in the True Presence of Christ in the consecrated communion host. I generally visit on Friday mornings, between nine and ten. Remembering St. Theresa of Avila, who was unable to pray for sixteen years without a book in her hand, I make a habit of bringing something to read. For the past year its been Augustine of Hippos City of God.
This is a book as worldly-wise as it is impressively spiritual. Written between 413 and 426 A.D., while the Roman Empire was being overrun by barbarian armies, this work of more than a thousand pages describes the human world as divided between two cities, the City of God and the City of Man. They exist side by side and intermingled. One is comprised of Gods people, the pilgrim Church on Earth. The other is devoted to the ways of man. Each has its distinct and separate destiny awaiting it at the end of the world. But until then, they are linked together in a perplexing and often frustrating symbiosis.
As one of the towering works of the human intellect, City of God is a book to be studied, not read, certainly with a pen and perhaps also a notebook at hand to mark passages with and jot down annotations. The scope of St. Augustines mind and his breadth of learning are immense. They propel the book from one level to the next, without losing sight of what has gone before. Perhaps because it was so many years in composition, City of God -- like life itself -- seems to proceed by phases, each one marked strongly by distinguishing themes as well as, at times, by a distinctive tone.
It was in the middle of Book XX, some 900 pages into my Pelican Classics edition, that I experienced an instance of intellectual déjà vu. I was aware, suddenly, of treading familiar ground, although I had never set foot in this place before.
The most likely explanation, of course, was that Augustine had repeated himself now and again in the course of the previous nineteen books, and that my subconscious had finally taken due note of the fact. Curiously, I scanned a couple of hundred pages back, paying special attention to the marked passages. What I discovered was not repetition but rather a number of extended disquisitions - yet another argument pursued, disconnectedly but most definitely, by the author.
It was nothing less than a fifth-century precursor of the modern debate on maintaining distinct national identities and preserving the integrity of the Western worldwhat VDARE.COM calls the National Question.
Connect these passages. What do we have but a strong suggestion that St. Augustine one of the most influential Fathers of the Church--held a view much closer to that of us present-day anti-globalist, anti-immigration reactionaries than to the universalist dream that all too many Christians have been persuaded is integral to their faith?
In Book XIX, Chapter 21, Augustine explains why a Roman Commonwealth as defined by Scipio in Ciceros On the Republic never existed. Scipios brief definition of the state or commonwealth was the weal of the people. He described the people as a multitude united in association by a common sense of right and a community of interest. No state, Scipio argued, can be maintained without justice, while without true justice there can be no right.
Therefore, Augustine concludes, where there is no true justice there can be
no association of men united by a common sense of right, and therefore no people answering to the definition of Scipio, or Cicero. And if there is no people then there is no weal of the people, but some kind of mob, not deserving the name of a people. If, therefore, a commonwealth is the weal of the people, and if a people does not exist where there is no association by a common sense of right [my italics], and there is no right where there is no justice, the irresistible conclusion is that where there is no justice there is no commonwealth.
Here is a remarkable anticipation of John Jays explanation, in The Federalist Papers, of why an American federal union could work: because there was one connected country [given] to one united peoplea people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion [my italics], attached to the same principles of government, very similar in manners and customs (The Federalist No.2)!
ii.) Augustine agreed with the ancient philosophers that the life of the wise man should be social. For how could that City [of God] have made its first start, how could it have advanced along its course, if the life of the saints were not social? The fundamental requirement for sociability, he argues, is domestic peace, since [a] mans [most dangerous] enemies are those of his own household. Beyond the household, the city or town represents the next social level, and
[a]fter [them] comes the world, which the philosophers reckon as the third level of human society .Now the world, like a confluence of water, is obviously more full of danger than the other communities by reason of its greater size. To begin with, on this level the diversity of languages separates man from man .[W]hen men cannot communicate their thoughts to each other, simply because of difference of language, all the similarity of their common human nature is of no avail to unite them in fellowship. So true is this that a man would be more cheerful with his dog for company than with a foreigner. I shall be told that the Imperial City has been at pains to impose on conquered peoples not only her yoke but her language also, as a bond of peace and fellowship, so that there should be no lack of interpreters but even a profusion of them. True; but think of the cost of this achievement! Consider the scale of those wars, with all that slaughter of human beings, all the human blood that was shed! (Book XIX, Chapters 6-7)
This passage speaks for itself: on the importance of linguistic (and, by implication, social) differences among peoples, the awkwardness of a foreign presence in society; the evils of imperialist policies that create a polyglot people.
iii.) In his gloss on the Book of Revelations account of the chaos which will precede the end of the world, Augustine says,
As for the words, and they went up over the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved City, this clearly does not mean that they have come, or will come, to one place, as if the camp of the saints and the beloved City are one and the same place. For these are simply the Church of Christ spread all over the world. It follows that wherever the Church is at that time, and it will be among all the nations--which is the meaning of over the breadth of the earth--there the camp of the saints will be, and there Gods beloved City. There it will be surrounded by its enemies - for they also will be present with that City, among all nations - in the savagery of that persecution. That is, the City will be hemmed in, hard pressed, shut up, in the straits of tribulation, yet it will not abandon its warfare, which is here called the camp. (Book XX, Chapter 11)
The vision expressed here seems identical to that which inspired Jean Raspails novel The Camp of the Saints: A worldwide assault, less racial than cultural and religious, against the West and the Christian religion that, with Hellenism, is one of its two major components.
iv.) Describing of the fate of the City of Man, Augustine writes, The earthly city will not be everlasting; for when it is condemned to the final punishment it will no longer be a city. (Book XV, Chapter 4my italics)
This seems a clear prediction that the destroyer of the present world will be neither fire nor ice but social chaos - the end of national identity, Babel Unbound.
G.K. Chesterton said that the problem with the modern world is not that it is wrong, but that it is crazed. Craze is a function of modernisms addiction to and worship of chaos, the satanic perversion of the divine order established by God. In City of God, Augustine shows himself deeply aware that the interests of the City of God are directly advanced by the encouragement of worldly peace and order in the City of Man. That is why St. Paul tells us to pray for our rulers.
And peace and order in the City of Man are furthered by the recognition of distinctions among individual men and among the peoples of the earth. If these distinctions are not observed, the social order of the earthly city tends to break toward chaos. And chaos, as pointed out by the anonymous poet who provides my epigraph, operates to the detriment of the heavenly city. Its tribulations on earth are only deepened by social and political turmoil.
Augustine appears to have understood the difficulties that socially-complicated societies face in maintaining order and holding chaos at bay - thus securing the ultimate salvation of the City of God. A degree of social complexity is not just inevitable, but a part of Gods plan for humanity. But complexity needs to be minimized wherever possible. This will ensure the social order, intellectual coherence, and religious orthodoxy that the Christian faith requires to accomplish its task: saving the greatest number of souls, - while also preparing the world as a final offering to be laid at the feet of Christ Come Again.
As I wrote in The Immigration Mystique, The Western nations, degenerate as they have become, continue to represent systems of relative order in a world that succumbs a little more each day to radical disorder. Can the salvation of man arise from chaos?
Consider this final extract from The City Of God:
While the Heavenly City is on a pilgrimage in this world, she calls out citizens from all nations and so collects a society of aliens, speaking all languages. She takes no account of any differences in customs, laws, and institutions, by which earthly peace is achieved and preserved - not that she annuls or abolishes any of these, rather she maintains them (for whatever divergences there are among the diverse nations, those institutions have one aim - earthly peace), provided that no hindrance is presented thereby to the religion which teaches that the one and true God is to be worshipped.( Book XIX, Chapter 17)
At first glance, Augustine might be read as advocating here the creation of the First Universal Nation comprising a society of nations, speaking all languages.
A closer reading shows, however, that the citizens are called out in a spiritual rather than a physical sense. They are called out, not from within the boundaries of their earthly nations to create a supernation in some other part of the world, but from the confinements of their spiritual ignorance and sin, to bear witness to the God Who Is Truth in their own lands.
As John Vinson points out in a letter in the February 2002 number of Chronicles, Jesus told His followers to go to all nations, not to invite all nations.
Multiculturalism for St. Augustine would not be the outrageous contradiction in terms as we know it in America today. It would be the genuine article - what used to be called the international community, its international components leavened to a greater or lesser extent by centers or outposts of the heavenly one.
So remember: If, this Christmas, you hear from your pastor or bishop that the spirit of brotherly love demands abolishing our borders and welcoming the entire population of Congo into the state of Maryland, remind him that one Very High Up authority--though not visibly present among us--could tell him differently.
I plan on remembering our readers in my prayers from St. Laurence on Christmas Eve. And I humbly solicit their own communications on behalf of all of us at VDARE.COM, who need them as much as anyone.
Merry Christmas to all!
Chilton Williamson Jr. is the author of The Immigration Mystique: Americas False Conscience and an editor and columnist for Chronicles Magazine, where he writes the The Hundredth Meridian column about life in the Rocky Mountain West.
Yep. That's the City of God. And that's a multicultural city. Augustine was advocating multiculturalism. So Augustine can't serve as an authority for the Williamson's pro-nationalist views.
Williamson recognizes this problem and tries to get out of it by spiritualizing this multiculturalism, viz., A closer reading shows, however, that the citizens are called out in a spiritual rather than a physical sense.
But this is just obfuscation.
Augustine was writing in Rome's late imperial and multicultural phase. Rome's multiculturalism would have been something close to a given. It's less clear what to say about North Africa, where Augustine came from. It was more provincial than Rome, but it's difficult for a layman to say what life was like there.
The universal church that Augustine championed was not identical with the empire or with multiculturalism. No more than those in the European nations who for centuries acknowledged a universal church supported multiculturalism or a world state. While proclaiming the union of all believers, Augustine would have taken a dim view of empire itself, since its demands for universality could conflict with those of the church. But that idea of the church did grow out of the example of the Roman empire and its aspirations to universality. To my way of thinking it's a tough call. There is something in the circumstances of Augustine's time which acts to subvert the point that Williamson wants to make. But in the end it's more a partial than a complete subversion.
Look at the 17 centuries of Western History since Augustine and you behold a creative tension between the universal and the national or particular. Our multiculturalism is to some degree an return to the universalism of the Roman ecumene or community. But it's also a blow to that creative tension.
Whether it's wildly wrong, or imaginatively spot on, Williamson's article does get one to think. Liberalism has been seen as Christianity minus Christ or God. I don't know if that's true or fair, but it does seem as though the Christian vision and secular multiculturalism are at least potentially at odds. They share the universalist ideal. But political or economic universalism may undercut or negate religious universalism, because it provides a different basis for unity. Ultimately, political and economic institutions will displace religion as the creators and maintainers of the ideal of unity and community. A religious community, however universal it aspire to be, will never embrace as much of the physical and demographic world as the One World of politics or economics, though it may embrace much more of the metaphysical and spiritual world.
But does believing in the spiritual equality and community of all people mean inviting them all here? A 4th or 5th Century Roman might have had to deal with what we are trying to cope with. A 4th or 5th century North African would have had fewer problems of that sort than his Roman counterpart, or than us.
Here is one more thought: in addition to the universalisms you mention--religious, on the one hand, and economic and political on the other, there is also moral universalism--the idea that we owe duties to all persons (even slaves and foreigners, according to Epictetus, and even to our enemies, according to Jesus).
This notion was already present in the teachings of the Stoics long before Augustine, and is a part of the Christian notion of agape or universal love.
Universalism was, indeed, a part of classical liberalism, but seems to have died out in current liberalism, which sees itself as a loosely associated coalition of Blacks, gays, feminists, Chicanos, et al., who share mutual interests but who owe duties only to others within their own subgroup.
Contemporary liberalism has in this way betrayed the universalistic ideal.
This ideal is also woefully absent in much of contemporary conservatism (e.g., in most of the posts on this site).
St. Augustine's Confessions are a good read as well.
"What does it all mean?"
"Oh. It's that again...."
I agree with you, Codeword. St Augustine's City is clearly a metaphore for the Western Civilization, which has a common language philosophically but not linguistically, and the need for genetic cohesion is pure invention of Williamson's.
Perhaps, but he also made a gratuitous jump from "association by a common sense of right" to one "connected country [given] to one united people-a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion".
Among the conservatives, there is no disputation for a need of common language and a common sense of rights. There is a difference of opinion though as to the importance of common genetic source, so I focussed on that difference alone.
... such as the Christian Church, with which St. Augustine was somewhat familiar.
Paul Gottfried is the latest to write about the decline of the old middle class culture and of the nation-states that rose with the bourgeoisie. Older ideologies of democracy and classical political and economic liberalism were grounded in that older proprietorial middle class, which has disappeared. The new global, multiculural order brings with it a more managerial and therapeutic order. Whatever is coming, if it's given free rein it won't resemble much what came before.
I don't think race is at the core of the dilemma. It's culture. But here's the rub. The very technologies and media that make an assimilationist culture so powerful, are available to minority groups within it to develop their own culture and ideologies. When a certain critical mass in demographic terms is reached, real and turbulent conflict is sure to follow. The new managerial and therapeutic order may or may not be able to manage, gloss over or numb these ethnic conflicts for the time being, but they'll remain a source of instability.