In his Economic Thought Before Adam Smith, Rothbard identified Augustine of Hippo as “the first Church Father to have a positive view of the merchant” noting that it was wrong to condemn a whole class of men for the sins of a few. Augustine also understood that valuation of goods stem from “their own needs rather than by any more objective criterion or by their rank in the order of nature.”
Moreover, Augustine broke with the classical Greek view of the polis that exalted the polis and downplayed or rejected the efforts of individualists and entrepreneurs who sought to innovate or overturn the status quo. In Augustine’s view, on the other hand, Rothbard notes, ”profound emphasis on the individual” set the stage for future philosophical developments that recognized “the essential place of the individual in the natural order.”
Rothbard quotes the famous passage of Augustine’s from City of God , Book IV:
Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; it is ruled by the authority of a prince, it is knit together by the pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law agreed on. If, by the admittance of abandoned men, this evil increases to such a degree that it holds places, fixes abodes, takes possession of cities, and subdues peoples, it assumes the more plainly the name of a kingdom, because the reality is now manifestly conferred on it, not by the removal of covetousness, but by the addition of impunity. Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, “What thou meanest by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, whilst thou who dost it with a great fleet art styled emperor.
In spite of this passage’s insightfulness, it would be nonetheless disingenuous to claim (as Rothbard does not) that Augustine draws the correct conclusions from this correct observation. Augustine does indeed correctly pinpoint the true nature of the state. Unfortunately, Augustine nonetheless concludes that monopolistic civil governments are necessary for peace. In this we see an odd contradiction in Augustine’s thought. As an observer of the state and its evils, Augustine is second to none for his time, offering very keen insights into the hypocrisies and contradictions behind the justifications offered for state rule. And yet, in spite of his detailed take-down of states, including, of course, the Roman Empire, but also a myriad of other states as well, Augustine then turns around and concludes that nothing better can be hoped for.
In this position, we are reminded that the key to understanding Augustine’s overall view of the state is his assertion that the best that can be hoped for is that the most terrible elements of society or neighboring kingdoms be restrained by force by some ruler (not necessarily a monarch). Without an absence of open warfare or terror campaigns by princes, Augustine maintains, few things of value can be accomplished. This is no doubt correct, but he carries this position too far in concluding that ultimately, even when princes and dictators abuse their power, resistance is rarely justified except in the most extreme cases. This is odd given the frequently negative language Augustine uses to describe the state. His repeated references to political rulers as thieves and brigands and robbers would seem to make is clear that Augustine views the state as something poisonous to human society. But then he turns around and more or less argues that it’s best to die by drinking some of that particular poison than by dying of something else.
Before we can delve more completely into this, we need to be aware of how Augustine uses the word “state.” In defining the state he writes: “Now what is a State but a multitude of men bound together by some bond of concord?” (Letter CXXXVIII, 9-15)
Here Augustine is writing about 1,400 years before Max Weber, so we’ll give him a break. But obviously, Augustine’s definition of state is closer to what we might call a “commonwealth” or “community.” Augustine does not necessarily mean a purely voluntary community, but we can also guess from his overall writings that he does not envisage what we would recognize that as a state today. Namely, an organization that enjoys a monopoly over the means of coercion within a territory. Nonetheless, Augustine’s usage of the term makes no distinction at all between the rulers and the ruled. This in itself is a fatal error, as explained by Weber, Franz Oppenheimer, Frank Chodorov, Martin Van Creveld, and others. Fortunately, however, it does not prevent Augustine from making some astute observations.
2:59 pm on September 5, 2014
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