Whose Augustine? Which City?
June 8, 2015
Michael J.S. Bruno. Political Augustinianism: Modern Interpretations of Augustine's Political Thought. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014. 224pp. $28.99/£24.99
We should not lose sight of how remarkable it is that a fifth-century north African bishop continues to be read in political theory courses in the twenty-first century. Even more remarkably, Augustine's political thought is not merely a specimen pressed under the glass of antiquarian, historical study as a relic of what people used to think. He is often read and invoked as an authority, even as a kind of contemporary, in constructive works of political theology and political theory. The Doctor of Grace has proved to be an ongoing catalyst and foil for political thinkers from John Rawls to William Connolly.
The retrieval (or ressourcement) of Augustine's political thought in Christian theology received a notable uptick in the twentieth century, spawning various schools of thought that endure into the twenty-first. Telling the story of this ongoing conversation is the primary task of Bruno's Political Augustinianism. In fact, the book largely amounts to a massive literature review, tracking the reemergence of Augustine's political thought in rather obscure French and Belgian debates in the 1920s and 30s (notably in the work of Gustave Combés, Henri-Xavier Aquillière, and Henri Irénée Marrou); in Protestant retrievals by Niehuhr and Ramsey; and up through the notion of "the secular" introduced by Robert Markus and contested in the work of John Milbank and Oliver O'Donovan. Along the way are significant cameos by thinkers such as Ernest Fortin, Joseph Ratzinger, Rowan Williams, Jean Bethke Elshtain, Eric Gregory, and others. Bruno's book functions as a long, comprehensive annotated bibliography. This is a wonderful gift for scholars and students in political theology looking for the lay of the land, but I'm not sure it makes for a great book. It's more like a mini-encyclopedia.
Bruno has no discernible constructive project or voice, and hence offers no evaluation along the way. Instead we get a litany of interpreters who take their turn on stage. Granted, Bruno does trace ongoing threads of debate. For example, it was Marrou who suggested that the "overlap" of the City of God and the earthly city constituted a tertium quid, a kind of "third place" that, in Robert Markus' seminal work is turned into a kind of "neutral" territory that looks a lot like the sort of naked public square the liberalism demands--which is good enough reason to be suspicious. Hence this reading is contested by Milbank and others (though Bruno shows little familiarity with Milbank's later work on these matters). Bruno almost comprehensively tracks the various readings of Augustine's political thought over the past century.
But along the way, and even by the end of the book, there is no real constructive argument that situates and evaluates this play-by-play of what others have said. (The book ends with an oddly almost-sermonic coda that takes a few positions but with little real argument.) It's hard to tell if this is a stance of faux neutrality or merely the lack of a substantive vision. I suspect the latter. My hunch is Bruno would simply parrot the--admittedly excellent--work of his doctoral advisor, Robert Dodaro. But that book has already been written.
Perhaps what's most remarkable is how very little Augustine there is in Political Augustinianism. Bruno's book is what we might call a work of "tertiary" literature that is largely content to summarize a vast secondary literature generated by the primary classics like Augustine's City of God. There may be a place for work of that sort, but the absence of primary text engagement becomes egregious when, in chapter 5, Bruno claims to be "Interpreting Augustine's Political and Social Thought" but really just ends up interpreting the interpreters. The sorts of claims he makes in this chapter requires accountability to primary texts that Bruno never engages. As a result, Political Augustinianism might be a reference book you'd consult to get a handle on what people have been saying about Augustine; but it does nothing to lead you into the treasures and labyrinth of Augustine himself.
Finally, as a bibliophile who believes that books are cultural artifacts that say something about who we are, I have to note serious disappointments with the materiality of this book. The typesetting feels like a desktop published version of a dissertation (the copyright page announces the book "was produced using PressBooks.com"). Footnotes are regularly misplaced on different pages. The accumulation of typos is intolerable. And not once but twice the book is said to include a "Foreward." Whatever my criticisms of the book, if it was worth publishing it deserved better care than this.
James K.A. Smith is professor of philosophy at Calvin College where he holds the Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology & Worldview. He is editor of Comment magazine and the author of numerous books, including Letters to a Young Calvinist.