Augustine and Corporate Peace (as in social, not)

Still hacking away through Augustine – coming to the end of it though. He’s started talking about the destiny of the two cities, and you just know he’s about to hit the Book of Revelations. Anyway, he had an interesting line about peace that really highlighted the way his thought works in terms of the city, rather than on an individual level. I’d read in the Preface somewhere that his work focused on the city, and what it meant to be a citizen – understandable, given the name of the book – but I’d never really particularly felt that focus. There was very little about government or authority or any of the things I’d associate with a discussion of citizenship. Maybe I’m not looking hard enough. Anyway, to cut a long story short, I just found something city-ish, and I thought it was worth sharing.

It all began (on a stormy winter’s night) with a discussion of peace, in Book XIX (it’s very satisfying writing with Roman numerals; I always wanted to be that kind of writer). Augustine argues that the Supreme Good, which the City of God is heading for, is true peace. Obviously we can have moments of peace here on Earth, but they’re only moments, and they’re always under threat of dissolution, whether by interpersonal conflict or larger, international evils (XIX, 11). Augustine argues that everybody is striving towards peace, and even war is about establishing a new type of peace between two nations (one where the winners define ‘peace’).

This is where we have to take a step back and consider what he’s actually on about when he talks about peace. He doesn’t mean peace in the sense that nothing’s happening and everything’s really dull and quiet. He doesn’t mean peace in the sense that you’ll never get upset, because you’ve achieved Zen or something. It’s more useful to think of it in the sense of an ecosystem. If you imagine a stable ecosystem, one that’s balanced and able to sustain itself quite happily, that’s more what Augustine is talking about. It’s when the set of relationships between constituent parts of the whole is stable. An unstable set of relationships, speaking in terms of ecosystem, will make the whole thing collapse. If there’s too many tigers and they eat all the prey, then the tigers start dying, because the ecosystem’s unstable and it can’t sustain its constituent parts. That’s the sort of peace Augustine’s talking about:

“And even if the flesh of dead animals is devoured by other animals, in whatever direction it is taken, with whatever substances it is united, into whatever substances it is converted and transformed, it still finds itself subject to the same laws which are diffused throughout the whole of matter for the preservation of every mortal species, establishing a peace by a harmony of congruous elements.” (XIX, 12)

Cool, huh. This is the ‘City’ part of Augustine’s vision of the City of God – it’s the social heart of his concept of heaven. I really like this way of theorising heaven, because it doesn’t make it sound terribly boring. It preserves the messiness of life, and I’d even go as far to suggest that, by this theory, there may well still be disagreements and conflict in heaven. Civic peace is a very different thing to personal peace – I don’t think it’s necessary to argue that heaven is where everything goes our way and we just have a really great easy blissed out time. Let’s return to the ecosystem example: Imagine a bird that’s living in a nest with its mate and its young. The mate gets eaten by a predator – that’s how the ecosystem works. It’s a stable system, which is, by our definition, peaceful. Then a storm blows through and destroys the nest – bird’s gotta get to building, or it won’t have a home. On the level of the ecosystem, the civic level, the concept of ‘peace’ looks nothing like our little zen garden.

There’s also a second aspect to this peace discussion which we sort of touched on earlier, and I’d like to go back to it. It’s this whole idea of peace as something imposed on losers by winners after wars. Here’s Augustine:

“For even the wicked when they go to war do so to defend the peace of their own people, and desire to make all men their own people, if they can, so that all men and all things might together be subservient to one master… Thus pride is a perverted imitation of God. For pride hates a fellowship of equality under God, and seeks to impose its own dominion on fellow men, in place of God’s rule. This means that it hates the just peace of God, and loves its own peace of injustice.” (XIX, 12)

There’s foundation here to talk about imperialism, which will come up later in my reading (just you wait till I hit Levinas). From this quote alone, we can already see how we might criticise the colonial enterprises – they sought to make other people into their own, so that all men and all things might together be subservient to one master. Of course, this ‘one master’ might ostensibly be God, but in reality there was political and economic power at stake. Thus, the fellowship of equality under God was set aside so that the West could impose their own dominion in place of God’s rule – and even worse, they dared to invoke God’s name as the rationale for their bullshit!

So we’ve got interesting questions of power and peace and authority being raised here, which, to be honest, I thought the book would have more of. The real question is how we set about distinguishing Godly authority from our own unjust pride, which supplants God’s authority to further our own ends. I suspect Augustine will have a little bit to say on that topic, but the fuller treatment probably won’t come around until much later writers – some post-colonial stuff. Long-term goals.

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