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 An Austrian Perspectiv... Best Price: $1.99 Buy New $29.00 (as of 07:40 EST - Details) 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.
For Augustine, minimizing coercive violence is of paramount importance, but in that matter we must be careful to define “peace” correctly. Augustine recognizes that “peace” as defined by political rulers is more the peace of a petulant child or robber. In a far-less-oft quoted passage that is perhaps more insightful than the Alexander the Great passage, Augustine describes the nature of “peace” when established by civil governments:
For what else is victory than the conquest of those who resist us? And when this is done there is peace. It is therefore with the desire for peace that wars are waged, even by those who take pleasure in exercising their warlike nature in command and battle. And hence it is obvious that peace is the end sought for by war. For every man seeks peace by waging war, but no man seeks war by making peace. For even they who intentionally interrupt the peace in which they are living have no hatred of peace, but only wish it changed into a peace that suits them better.
They do not, therefore, wish to have no peace, but only one more to their mind. And in the case of sedition, when men have separated themselves from the community, they yet do not effect what they wish, unless they maintain some kind of peace with their fellow-conspirators. And therefore even robbers take care to maintain peace with their comrades, that they may with greater effect and greater safety invade the peace of other men. And if an individual happen to be of such unrivalled strength, and to be so jealous of partnership, that he trusts himself with no comrades, but makes his own plots, and commits depredations and murders on his own account, yet he maintains some shadow of peace with such persons as he is unable to kill, and from whom he wishes to conceal his deeds.
In his own home, too, he makes it his aim to be at peace with his wife and children, and any other members of his household; for unquestionably their prompt obedience to his every look is a source of pleasure to him. And if this be not rendered, he is angry, he chides and punishes; and even by this storm he secures the calm peace of his own home, as occasion demands. For he sees that peace cannot be maintained unless all the members of the same domestic circle be subject to one head, such as he himself is in his own house. And therefore if a city or nation offered to submit itself to him, to serve him in the same style as he had made his household serve him, he would no longer lurk in a brigand’s hiding-places, but lift his head in open day as a king, though the same covetousness and wickedness should remain in him. And thus all men desire to have peace with their own circle whom they wish to govern as suits themselves. For even those whom they make war against they wish to make their own, and impose on them the laws of their own peace. (City of God, Book XIX, Chap 12)
Thus, having established that that rulers are robbers write large, Augustine then establishes than even when they do manage to establish peace, from which many indeed benefit, the motivations of the ruler remain suspect and based in little more than an urge to kill, steal, and control others.
We see this theme throughout City of God, which students of Augustine know was written largely to combat pro-Roman propaganda that extolled the virtues of Roman rule and condemned the Christians for corrupting the allegedly virtuous and divinely-favored Empire. Writing as a historian, Augustine examines the history of Rome in detail (using many sources that are now lost) and in the process decimates the claims that the Roman Empire was a force for peace, order, and law throughout the known world. Indeed, Augustine notes, the history of the Empire is a history of repression, violence, and civil war. How can the Romans, Augustine asks, who are so inept as ordering their own “household” claim to be the rightful ruler of everone else’s “household” as well? And in this context, Augustine proceeds to become a chronicler of a more-or-less nonstop march of violence perpetrated by princes, kings, and republican rulers down to his own day.
As the heart of it all for Augustine is the urge to dominate, steal, and rob, and such impulses are made far worse by the power gained through political domination. Thus, when Augustine asks “what are kingdoms but great robberies?” he is illustrating the central theme of City of God, and specifically, his history of the Romans. His conclusions about the Romans, and by extension all earthly states, is that political rule “is earthly, not heavenly, and cannot bestow what it has not in its power” and that human government is best compared to “Barabbas the robber, not the saviour, but the murderer; not the Giver of Life, but the destroyer.”
Indeed, in Augustine’s thinking men are not designed at all to exercise power over other men at all, and he notes that ”by the order of nature” men should not “have dominion over anything but the irrational creation – not man over man, but man over the beasts. ” Thus, the civil government of the world, at least since the days of Genesis, is the product of a perversion of the natural order, perpetrated by men.
How unfortunate then, that after all this excellent work in sociology, history, political science, and even economics, Augustine then turns around and concludes that there are different rules for the state than for citizens: “For a man serves God in one way that he is man, in another way in that he is also king.”
In this, Augustine establishes that there is one set of rules for ordinary humans, and another set of rules of kings. This isn’t to say that there are no bounds on the prerogatives of a political ruler. A “good” ruler is of a certain type, namely, the type that adheres to the natural law, which in Augustine’s view can include the application of monopolistic violence. Nonetheless, the good ruler has certain qualities. (Note: When Augustine refers to God, “God’s will,” “God’s majesty,” etc., he means, in practical application, “natural law” or “natural order”:
… if they are not lifted up amid the praises of those who pay them sublime honors, and the obsequiousness of those who salute them with an excessive humility, but remember that they are men; if they make their power the handmaid of His [i.e., God’s] majesty by using it for the greatest possible extension of His worship; if they fear, love, worship God; if more than their own they love that kingdom in which they are not afraid to have partners; if they are slow to punish, ready to pardon; if they apply that punishment as necessary to government and defence of the republic, and not in order to gratify their own enmity; if they grant pardon, not that iniquity may go unpunished, but with the hope that the transgressor may amend his ways; if they compensate with the lenity of mercy and the liberality of benevolence for whatever severity they may be compelled to decree; if their luxury is as much restrained as it might have been unrestrained; if they prefer to govern depraved desires rather than any nation whatever; and if they do all these things, not through ardent desire of empty glory, but through love of eternal felicity, not neglecting to offer to the true God, who is their God, for their sins, the sacrifices of humility, contrition, and prayer. (City of God V)
But given everything Augustine has just told us about those who seek political power, and the nature of kingdoms as criminal organizations, what are the odds that such a ruler would exist? Using Augustine’s own analysis, we can only conclude that the possibility is close to zero. History would certainly bear out this latter conclusion, and Augustine himself could explain why.
So why so much naivete on the part of Augustine? Part of it, of course, is that he’s laboring without any of the benefits of the later contributions made to political theory laid out by later theorists such as Bellarmine, Aquinas, and others (and also covered by Rothbard here.) It could be that Augustine simply saw no way out from the conundrum he created. He is, after all among the first “debunkers” of the state in t hat he was among the first to reject wholesale the mythologies and patriotic propaganda of empires and city states that were so common in the classical world, but in the end, he was on his own. Today we find the same attitude from many moderns who cannot deny the brutality and criminality of the modern state, but who in the end, like Augustine, claim there is no alternative. With no Molinari, no Rothbard, no Aquinas, Bastiat, or Etienne de la Boetie to study or learn from, Augustine has a pretty good excuse for his oversights. Modern defenders of the state have no such excuse.