Of St. Augustine, The Teacher, and Politics

Erik Root

May 1, 2006

Last weekend, many faculty, and a few students, embarked on a trip into the mountains to read “The Teacher” from one of the fathers of the Christian faith, St. Augustine. He certainly deserves to be called a Saint because he was instrumental in making political philosophy palpable to Christians and vice versa. He made political philosophy respectable to Christians and taught Christians how to engage the culture around them. In a most serious way, Augustine’s project fulfills, on the deepest level, the mission of Patrick Henry College; he understood that to make the case for Christianity, we must be prepared to meet the non-Christian, or irreligious, on their level by appealing to them via something common to all men. Note Father Ernest Fortin on Augustine: “philosophy provides a common ground on which all believers and nonbelievers can meet. Only by means of philosophy is the Christian able to make his position intelligible to outsiders and, if need be, to combat with their own weapons the objections that they raise against it.”

According to Fortin, Augustine understood Christianity’s need “with respect to political understanding and political guidance.” If Fortin is correct about Augustine, then we must conclude that Augustine was a political man. But what is politics? This is something we discussed the last night of the retreat.

If we are to believe Aristotle (and Socrates), all men are naturally political, and all politics aims at some good. Plato’s student writes that all partnerships aim at some good. Therefore, since all partnerships are political, and all partnerships aim at some good, then politics exists when two or more people come into contact with one another. In this way, the dialogue that Augustine had with his son, Adeodatus, makes the work as much political as it is metaphysical.

It is true that the politics in a household is different from the politics in a city, but the essential principle remains: we have friends, marry, etc., in order to attain something better than we can gain uno solo. That the city is made up of many households does not make the home or private sphere anti-political. God, we might say, sewed it into the nature of man that he needed others. The notion that, in marriage, the man and the woman complete each other represents a variation on this political truth.

In “The Teacher,” our Saint notes that man has the capacity for logos, or reason. According to Augustine, “it would be foolish to think that [H]e hates in us ’that very quality by which he has raised us above the beasts.’” The capacity for speech and reason is specific to man and it is that quality of our nature that, according to Larry Arnhart, permits the actualization of our potentiality; it allows us to become fully human and, cultivated rightly, makes us truly Happy. Arnhart wonders, since humans can think and reason without the aid of others, if we are social or political even in our most private moments. He replies: “for human beings live together means not just sharing in things of the body, but sharing thoughts.” This broad view of politics, then, seems to extend even to those times we think we are in solitude. It means that even the act of writing is a political act! In “The Teacher,” Augustine recorded for posterity something he thought mankind needed and that would contribute to his Happiness. Likewise, Socrates called down philosophy from the heavens in order to discover how political life might be brought into harmony with nature. This is why the ancients, no less than the Founders, were concerned with the best regime. The best regime would not only supply our basic wants, but might also fulfill our deepest needs. Augustine understood this, as Arnhart notes, when he wrote “human beings cannot fulfill their nature except by yielding themselves in faith to the divine source of nature.”