May 11, 2010

Augustine, the Pirate and Alexander

I said Augustine compared Kings and Emperors to robbers in my last post, this was a mistake. Augustine doesn't describe Kings alone as robbers, but states as bands of robbers. Consider what he writes,

Justice removed, then, what are kingdoms but great bands of robbers? What are bands of robbers themselves but little Kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; it is governed by the authority of a ruler; it is bound together by a pact of association; and the loot is divided according to an agreed law. If, by the constant addition of desperate men, this scourge grows to such a size that it acquires a territory, establishes a seat of government, occupies cities and subjugates peoples, it assumes the name of kingdom more openly. For this name is now manifestly conferred upon it not by the removal of greed, but by the addition of impunity. It was a pertinant and true answer which was made to Alexander the Great by a pirate whom he had seized. When the King asked him what he meant by infesting the sea, the pirate defiantly replied 'The same as you do when you infest the whole world; but because I do it with a ship I am called a robber, and because you do it with a great fleet you are an emperor (IV 4)

Augustine's words there have been miscaracterised by many, including me, because of the last Alexander anecdote, that appears to focus Augustine's scorn upon the King, the greatest robber. But to do that is to neglect the earlier part of the passage where Augustine compares the kingdom, the nation itself, with a band of robbers. What binds it together are the same things which bind them together, a rule of government, distribution and a desire for increased wealth (desire is the keynote to any association as we shall see in Augustine). Nations therefore not just their leaders are condemned by Augustine. In part this is an ironic slight on Rome itself: she owed her origins in part, according to myth, to those scoundrels that Romulus was able to bring with him to the site. In part though it is a serious point: for Augustine there is no difference between a nation and a gang of theives. He thinks that 'England', 'France', 'Scotland', 'Zimbabwe', 'America' the mafia and the Triads are all bodies of the same type. Both may control territory, both may administer their version of justice (according to Aristotle distribution) and both may want to enforce their wills on others, both may beleive they are right: for the author of the City of God, the key difference between criminals and citizens is not virtue but the scale of that which they are committed to and the recognition that attaches itself to them. States are recognised and large: gangs only recognised by other small units, other gangs and are small.

Only the denizens of the City of God belong to an association which is not by its very nature vicious! Augustine points the finger not at Alexander but at all those who accompanied and supported Alexander.


Mordaunt said...

for Augustine there is no difference between a nation and a gang of theives. He thinks that 'England', 'France', 'Scotland', 'Zimbabwe', 'America' the mafia and the Triads are all bodies of the same type.

'Government and gang of thieves', surely. I don't think that Augustine thought of nations in the modern sense. The modern nationalist sees the government as the manifestation of the national will either through election (if democratic) or by some mystical process by which the dictator speaks for the nation (if not). Augustine wouldn't, I think, have held that all subjects of the Empire were Romans who were, in some sense, spoken for by the court at Ravenna.

In any event I think Augustine is a bit more nuanced than that. Granted he holds that unjust government is no different in principle to banditry and that most governments are unjust he also holds that some governments can be just some of the time and that government has a legitimate role in upholding some kind of rough and ready civil peace and that a Christian governor has an obligation to use his authority to facilitate the activity of the Church.

You're right, of course, that all this in Augustine's eyes are the politics of the earthly Babylon rather than the City of God but he doesn't, AFAICS, regard the earthly Babylon as being completely evil.