In his inaugural address on January 20, President Joe Biden invoked the words of the great theologian of the Roman Catholic Church, Saint Augustine.
‘Many centuries ago’, said Biden, ‘Saint Augustine, a saint of my church, wrote that a people was a multitude defined by the common objects of their love’.
Contemporary theologians have been piling in since Biden conjured up the ‘doctor of grace’. Chad C. Pecknold, for instance, took to Twitter not only to point out that Biden ‘failed to quote Augustine in full’ but also that ‘he failed to identify the only common object of love that Augustine thought mattered for a true commonwealth: God’.
Biden was paraphrasing a line from Book 19 of the Augustine’s The City of God. Augustine worked on The City of God for about fifteen years, describing it as his magnum opus et arduum, his great and difficult work. Probably the most widely circulated modern translation, in the Penguin Classics series, is over a thousand pages long. It seems a bit much to expect a political speech to quote from such a text ‘in full’.
Augustine’s ‘full’ definition of a ‘people’, and what presumably Pecknold would have liked to hear coming from the President’s lips, is that ‘a people is the association of a multitude of rational beings united by a common agreement on the objects of their love’. He goes on to observe that to know ‘the character of a particular people we must examine the objects of its love’. He writes, furthermore, and contrary to Pecknold’s spin, that ‘whatever those objects’, as long as the multitude is indeed ‘not of animals but of rational beings’, and as long as there is some common agreement on those objects, then ‘there is no absurdity’ in calling it a people. Obviously, ‘the better the objects of this agreement, the better the people’, and vice versa. But Augustine was adamant that there was no single ‘true commonwealth’ based on worship of God. Rather, there was a spectrum of possible commonwealths, from bad to good, unjust to just. All the same, all existing commonwealths, meeting the definition, are ‘true’ commonwealths.
Biden’s paraphrasis is profounder than he seems to have been given credit for. His argument that a people is ‘defined by’ its common objects of attention and attraction captures the thrust of Augustine’s argument. As I have argued in my book Self and City in the Thought of Saint Augustine, one of the themes that runs across Augustine’s work – and he wrote about so much, including the origins of human language, the nature of music, the character of freedom, and so on – is the distinction between res and signum, things and signs. Our memories, for instance, are said by him to be images or signs of things that have happened to us; words are also signs of things, at their most profound signs of abiding truths; the holy sacraments are things which are signs of God’s reality. Augustine’s word for a state or commonwealth is res publica. The people, he says, is a sign of those objects or things that bring it into focus, that bind it together, that give it significance. The people take the shape of, are defined by, their common loves.
We tend to think that the state, commonwealth or republic is the ‘sign’ of the people, that the people are the ‘thing’ represented in the ‘sign’ of the state, that ‘people power’, what political theorists like my colleague Adam Lindsay call ‘constituent power’, is a kind of stuff or energy that gives rise to a political community. Augustine, instead, says that a state is a compound of a people and the common objects of their love, objects which give a people their shape. Augustine challenges all ‘peoples’ not to think of themselves as channelling a kind of formless collective power but instead as communities only brought into some kind of identity by those things which we choose to care about. He even suggests that we might start to care more for our fellow citizens when we’ve decided to care about something beyond our immediate selves. For even in the theatre, he writes in his book Christian Teaching, ‘that den of wickedness, someone who loves an actor and revels in his skill as if it were a great good, or even the supreme one, also loves all those who share his love, not on their account, but on account of the one they equally love’.
By turning to Augustine, Biden was appealing to an old way of thinking to call for democratic renewal. It is in the same spirit that Professor Bonnie Honig of Brown University has argued in her book Public Things that if we begin again to recognise democracy’s rootedness in ‘common love for, antipathy to, and contestation of public things’ then we might be able to apprehend these as ‘underwrit[ing] the signs and symbols of democratic unity’. Biden’s inauguration called for unity, but it also suggested, by way of Augustine, how a sort of magnanimous and openhearted unity might be conceived and achieved.
Ben Holland is an Associate Professor of Political Theory and International Relations at the School of Politics and International Relations, University of Nottingham.
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