Authenticity   /   Fall 2021   /    Essays

Another City

Augustine Before the Modern

Charles Mathewes

St. Augustine in His Study (Vision of St. Augustine) (detail), 1502, by Vittore Carpaccio (c.1460–1525/1526); Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, Venice, Italy; incamerastock/Alamy Stock Photo.

Augustine is having a moment right now, and not only because President Joseph Biden mentioned him in his inaugural address as “a Saint of my church.” Recent scholarship is taking an interest in the man that stretches well beyond the usual disciplinary suspects of theology or ancient history. A range of political and social theorists think Augustine is crucial for understanding the deeper intellectual currents of modernity, whether as a source of its antiliberalism or an early patron of deeply principled liberalism. Not incidentally, this surge of interest is taking place amid a vast and wrenching reckoning with the complications of race and Eurocentrism in the humanities, and most recently classics in particular. If it has not yet come specifically for Augustine, it is only a matter of time before it does.

It is understandable that our age of reckonings has finally come for antiquity. After all, if there is an origin to our history of error, it must lie there, where, we have been told, we may find the beginnings of our “we.” Consider the “great Roman monosyllables—pax, ius, mos, lex, peace, justice, order, law.”11xJasper Griffin, Virgil (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1986), 102. The English language shares these words with the Romans of two thousand years ago. Religion, revelation, faith, reason; virtue, conscience, nation, creation; sacrifice, vocation, prudence, providence; person, mercy, city: The vocabulary is infinite, almost. If you were to gather a basket of words to order a community, or record your path through life, these are the ones you would most likely choose; and all of them are Latin at their root.

What’s more, these are the very words used both to critique our social order today, as well as to defend it. We use them to excoriate our injustices, cruelties, oppressions, racism, patriarchy; to condemn our callous indifference to purported “other” cultures, presumed “rival” peoples; to denounce hostility to difference in general: So many of our castigatory categories are borrowed from the very same linguistic sources that elicit our righteous fury. Not just in politics, but in the basic vocabulary of our everyday lives, and not just in triumphalism, but in jeremiad, so many of our roads lead back to Rome.22xI agree with Melissa Lane’s observation in her lucid and canny The Birth of Politics: Eight Greek and Roman Political Ideas and Why They Matter (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014) that these ideas are the “roots” (5) of our own. But Lane does not reckon with how radical the changes were that Christianity effected upon these categories. In this, at least, I agree with Benjamin Constant, Friedrich Nietzsche, Franz Overbeck, and Bernard Williams.

Yet it is just as fundamental a fact that these words have changed decisively—syntactically, semantically, culturally, politically—over the past two millennia. This semantic revolution is not attributable simply to the casual, relentless weathering of time; these changes in meaning and use are far more coherent and deliberate than can be accounted for by random semantic drift. They legibly register a thematic coherence. Some event—some real revolution—must have happened.

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