Gilbert Meilaender’s Augustinian politics

Gilbert Meilaender’s Augustinian politics

We look to politics for the satisfaction of so many of our desires; yet, thinking with Augustine should remind us that the deepest longings of the restless human heart can never be stilled by any good that politics provides. And because this is true, because even our most powerful institutions cannot redeem the brokenness of human life, we would be foolish to set aside the claims of duty in vain attempts to produce the good results we desire. […]

Perhaps the most important lesson this analysis can teach us is that our actual communities — which are simply a swaying to and fro between these two ultimate possibilities [the cities of God and Man] — will always be characterized by division and friction. The conflict between the two cities (symbolized by Cain’s killing of Abel) means that the life of any community must be disordered — and, hence, that life will be marked not only by the eschatological conflict between the City of God and the earthly city but also by division and conflict within society (symbolized by the killing of Remus by Romulus). Therefore: no return to paradise. No utopia. No end to friction and strife. No tone of surprise or outrage when politics turns out to be more complicated and less amenable to our ideals than we had imagined. The best we can hope for, and a mark of political wisdom, is that our divisions and disagreements be channeled and controlled in creative and fruitful ways. […]

Thinking with Augustine, therefore, we might come to endorse a politics free of redemptive purpose while simultaneously distinguishing from a politics entirely neutral with respect to competing visions of the good life or entirely deprived of religious reference in public life. The earthly peace welcomed by the heavenly city is an agreement about ‘the things relevant to mortal life.’ It is ‘secular’ in the sense that it is confined to this age that is passing away and is not of eternal significance. […]

If we see that the religious neutrality of a state (that is, it does not aim at the salvation of its citizens nor see itself as having any unique connection to God’s redemptive purposes in history) is equivalent to neutrality with respect to competing visions of the good life, we will have to look to thinkers other than Augustine for theoretical support. A chastened, realistic, non redemptive politics is not a politics denuded of attention to and care for a wide range of matters — the bond between the generations, the dignity of the human body, the connection between marriage and procreation, the worth of weak and voiceless human beings. Such concerns are relevant to this mortal life and are simultaneously part of our comprehensive visions of the morally good life.

From The Way that Leads There, (Eerdmans, 2006), 77, 93, 104, 107.

Gilbert Meilaender on limits to self-knowledge

Any attempt definitively to review our lives or integrate fully their divergent strands may be futile; for we cannot find a place from which to see ourselves whole, to catch the heart and hold it still.

That is the profound insight of book 10 of Augustine’s Confessions. … For when in book 10 Augustine begins to take stock of how well he is doing in his attempt, since his conversion, to live the Christian life, he comes to see that this is a question he cannot answer.

A reader beginning the Confessions is likely to get the impression that its author understands the course of his life, but it turns out that this sort of life review can be done only by God. Unable to see himself whole and entire, Augustine finally has to acknowledge that our lives are a mystery to us. ‘What then am I, my God? What is my nature? A life various, manifold, and quite immeasurable. … I dive down deep as I can, and I can find no end.’ God knows the course of Augustine’s life better than he knows it himself, and, hence, the recounting of that life must become confession. ‘I will confess what I know of myself, and I will confess what I do not know of myself.’

We cannot really determine whether the course of our life, passing through its various stages, has had the kind of integrity and wholeness needed to make it complete. The division of life into ages offers a certain sense of completion—but at the cost of our capacity for free self-transcendence. … And the related vision of life’s course as a career offers what is, in the end, only an illusion of self-control and self-understanding.

from “A Complete Life,” First Things, no. 219 (Jan 2012). Also available in Should We Live Forever? (Eerdmans, 2013): 89-106.