It’s Election Day in the United States. In the run-up I figured I could use a little hope, so I’ve been reading Michael Lamb’s new book, A Commonwealth of Hope: Augustine’s Political Thought. This is my book report.

In The City of God, Augustine distinguishes between two “cities” that dwell alongside one another within human history.

Two cities have been formed by two loves: the [City of Man] by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the [City of God] by the love of God, even to the contempt of self. The former, in a word, glories in itself, the latter in the Lord. For the one seeks glory from men; but the greatest glory of the other is God, the witness of conscience. The one lifts up its head in its own glory; the other says to its God, “Thou art my glory, and the lifter up of mine head.”

This distinction between the City of Man and the City of God has given Augustine a reputation as a pessimist, dismissive of this life and concerned only with the next. But in A Commonwealth of Hope, Lamb argues that Augustine provides a framework of hope in this life and (dare I say it?) in civic and political life.

We see the City of Man in full flower in our current political climate, where power is exerted for the purpose of domination and self-aggrandizement, and only rarely for the common good. Both the ruler and the ruled, according to Augustine, are ruled by the love of ruling. That’s such a helpful insight: when the love of power reigns, it enslaves not only the powerless, but also the powerful. 

According to Augustine, the split between the two cities originated with the rebellion of Satan and his followers before the creation of the world (this is the same War in Heaven you read about in Paradise Lost).

While some [angels] steadfastly continued in that which was the common good of all, namely, in God Himself, and in His eternity, truth, and love; others, being enamoured rather of their own power, as if they could be their own good, lapsed to this private good of their own, from that higher and beatific good which was common to all, and, bartering the lofty dignity of eternity for the inflation of pride, the most assured verity for the slyness of vanity, uniting love for factious partisanshp, they became proud, deceived, envious.

Forgive this long intro. I’m just trying to make it clear that Augustine’s theological vision is also a social and political vision. The City of God is concerned with “the common good of all.” It is concerned with dignity (for which the inflation of pride is a sorry substitute) and with truth (of which the slyness of vanity is a gross mockery). And factious partisanship, the hallmark of the City of Man, has no place in the City of God. The wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God— though, you have to admit, it sure does feel good when you’re the one dishing it out.

So we find ourselves in the City of Man. But the City of God is here too, and it will grow until the City of God is all there is. The common good, truth, love, unity, and the lofty dignity of eternity will carry the day—and not by way of factious partisanship, or culture war or anger or self-interest or grievance or falsehood. 

To bring this back to hope, hope is closely tied to the idea of the “now and the not-yet.” The City of God is here now, but it’s not fully here. So we look forward to it. We stretch out toward it. Also, we work toward it. It is God’s business, I realize, to bring the City of God to bear. But God also invites us to join in. As Michael Lamb writes, “Seeking the peace of the commonwealth can be a way to participate in the eternal city” (p. 201).

So how, exactly, do you seek the peace of the commonwealth? By voting, certainly, but not only (or even mostly) through activity that is so directly political. Lamb writes,

Rather than seeing the commonwealth simply as a “state” or set of formal institutions, processes, or procedures, Augustine imagines the commonwealth as the broader realm in which citizens pursue temporal goods in common, which means that diverse citizens can seek political goods and build civic friendships in ways that do not directly relate to political institutions or electoral processes. This has salutary implications for political hope. When citizens despair about particular elections, institutions, or instantiations of power, they can direct their action to other objects of hope that might serve their communities beyond the boundaries of formal political institutions (p. 270).

Today, however, those of us in the United States do have the opportunity to take direct political action. It is my desire to vote out of hope, but our political system seems calculated to swing us between the two great failures of hope: despair and presumption. 

Despair, the absence of hope, “can license apathy or fatalism, encouraging citizens to withdraw from politics rather than stretch toward difficult political goods. When despair becomes a habit—a vice—it can further entrench the social and political problems that prompted pessimism in the first place” (Lamb, p. 270).

If despair is the absence of hope, presumption is disordered hope, producing unwarranted confidence. Presumption manifests in any number of ways in public life. Josef Pieper writes of “a pseudo-religious activism that believes it can construct…a claim to the kingdom of heaven that is rightful and absolutely valid and able, as it were, to pit itself against God (Faith, Hope, and Love, p. 126). Yikes. I’m seeing a whole lot of “pseudo-religious activism” on all sides. 

Michael Lamb writes, “Many political elites are tempted toward presumption, assuming they have the power to speak or act in the name of the people without consulting or considering their concerns” (p. 266). And presumption on the leaders’ part may lead to presumption on the part of the followers:

Their followers may begin to place all their hopes in them, presuming that electing or supporting a single person or party will solve all their problems. Failing to recognize the limits of politics and imperfect political leaders, these citizens could potentially make idols of particular leaders, parties, or causes and neglect the goods they share in common with other citizens. Such presumption, in turn, may generate despair among citizens who feel they have no ability to address overwhelming and persistent political challenges (p. 267).

Living in hope means finding a middle ground between despair and presumption. That’s hard, especially within a system in which politicians are so richly rewarded by our despair and presumption. I haven’t sorted out how to vote in hope, but I have been pondering something Augustine wrote: “You can’t even hope in anything you don’t love.” The futures envisioned by our political parties here in the City of Man—those are futures I can’t really love.

How can we live toward a future that we love? While you’re thinking on that, maybe think on this too, from Augustine: “Bad times, hard times—this is what people keep saying; but let us live well, and times shall be good. We are the times: such as we are, such are the times.”

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