The City of God is Not an Empire

St. Augustine, anti-imperialist

St. Augustine was no stranger to criticism. In his own day, he dealt with numerous controversies brought about by his affinity with Platonic philosophy, and that’s just for starters.

Augustine became even more controversial posthumously: You don’t get to be arguably the most influential theologian in the history of the world’s most influential religion without incurring sharp disagreement.

One of the lesser known ways he bucked conventional thinking was in his City of God, which among other things provided an implicit repudiation of imperialism.

Norman Vance argues that Augustine’s understanding of empire set the stage for Christian opposition to Britain’s use of imperial Rome as a model for territorial expansion, and that Augustine’s conceptualization of empire offers tools for a Christian-focused moral opposition to imperialism today.

British scholarship through to the early 20th century often took a sympathetic stance toward Roman era tactics for colonial expansion. Vance quotes a British schoolmaster in 1909 suggesting that the British empire is burdened with all of the knowledge that it must acquire from the tactics of the Roman empire and describes how “for others the grandeur of imperial Rome could dignify modern empire and perhaps illuminate imperial policy.” Vance also alludes to the popular decision of British schools to use Virgil’s conceptualization of empire, which suggests empire should only be bounded by the earth—that is, “endless empire.”

Other scholars, particularly ones with a Christian focus who invoked Augustine’s scathing critique of Rome, dissented against the narrative of an all-powerful and problem-free empire. William Gladstone, a devout Christian who served as prime minister of England for 12 years spread between 1868 and 1894, writes England’s mission:

Of all the Empires whose rise and fall have been recorded in history, there is not one that has owed its ruin or decay to checking the lust of unmeasured territorial acquisition. The wisest of the Roman Emperors was also the one who even recalled the boundaries of his dominions from beyond the Danube. … England, which has grown so great, may easily become little; through the effeminate selfishness of luxurious living; through neglecting realities at home to amuse herself everywhere else in stalking phantoms.

Gladstone opposed further British expansion on moral and political grounds shaped by Augustine’s thought. Moreover, his colleague and biographer, John Morley, offered a similar critique of a popular imperialist study titled The Expansion of England. “If [Britain’s] ideal is a great Roman Empire,” argued Morley, “which shall be capable by means of fleets and armies of imposing its will upon the world … the unwieldy weapon would break in our hands.”

Both Morley and Gladstone were emboldened by Augustine to champion anti-imperialist policies at a time when such policies were deeply unpopular.

Gladstone’s critique invoked two faults which Augustine abhorred in the Roman empire: the “lust of unmeasured territorial acquisition” and the “selfishness of luxurious living.”

“But the rich man is anxious with fears,” wrote Augustine, “pining with discontent, burning with covetousness, never secure, always uneasy, panting from the perpetual strife of his enemies, adding to his patrimony indeed by these miseries to an immense degree, and by these additions also heaping up most bitter cares.” Augustine understood that the impulse to expand the imperium was driven by elite self-indulgence. This diagnosis of territorial expansion as a symptom of moral and spiritual disease resonated with believers and tilted them towards anti-imperialist discourse.

Augustine also provides a scathing critique of empire as a structure:

[W]hat reason, what prudence, there is in wishing to glory in the greatness and extent of the empire, when you cannot point out the happiness of men who are always rolling, with dark fear and cruel lust, in warlike slaughters and in blood, which, whether shed in civil or foreign war, is still human blood; so that their joy may be compared to glass in its fragile splendor, of which one is horribly afraid lest it should be suddenly broken in pieces.

To question the justness of killing those outside the empire in an effort to expand it was a rather significant departure from the nationalistic rhetoric that had dominated political discourse during his time. In arguing that there is no moral justification for doing so, the City of God novelly provides an almost cosmopolitan understanding of international politics, one that suggests there is equal value in all life irrespective of your national affiliation.

Augustine argued that empires, by dispossessing people of their cities and forcing submission, commit “great robbery.” He quoted a pirate who had been captured by Alexander the Great: “What you mean by seizing the whole earth, but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, while you who does it with a great fleet are styled emperor.”

This novel understanding of imperialism as “robbery” of people with equal rights to dignity and prosperity not only informed the way scholars in the medieval through the Edwardian era conceptualized imperialism within the context of Rome, but also proved a useful framework criticizing imperialism more broadly—and well beyond a merely academic setting.