Augustine’s Christian Realism

It is the nature of our times that worship at the altar of politics has risen to predominance over the worship of the glorious Lord most deserving. Beyond the idolatry, this new tabernacle instigates a dreadfully distorted view of the political body, misapprehending the State’s telos (end purpose).

In a healthy polity, this telos of the State is not merely its propagation or achieving a utopia. Instead, the end of the State is the development of sound, transferrable virtues. In such a way, the State must help its citizens be citizens of the Kingdom of God temporally.

Is the World Perfectible?

Considering that the foundational text of our civilization is the Christian Bible, it would be helpful to begin our analysis with it. In Matthew, the author exclaims the following;

“That it might be fulfilled which the Lord spoke by the prophet, saying: Out of Egypt have I called my son” (Douay–Rheims Bible, Matthew 2:15).

Although referencing Mary and Joseph’s escape to Egypt, it is also appealing to the Jewish reader’s senses – harkening back to Hosea of the Hebrew Scriptures. Compare the verse with that found in the Prophecy of Hosea,

“As the morning passeth, so hath the king of Israel passed away. Because Israel was a child, and I loved him: and I called my son out of Egypt” (Hosea 11:1).

One can, with accessible exegesis, readily see the typological significance – that the nation of Israel in the Old Covenant foreshadows the Body of Christ in the new. If there were any doubt, Paul makes as much exceedingly clear in his epistles.[1] The Church acts spiritually as Christ’s body, an extension of his earthly ministry, such that those who are his followers can be said to be his “limbs.”

But what has this to do with the original Prophecy of Hosea and broader politics? Augustine’s theory is helpful here.[2] The Exodus from Egypt was an actual event but also a symbolic sign of the New Covenant. In this, the Christians (the spiritual Israelites) are called out of the realm of sin (Egypt), through the waters of baptism (the sea), and finally toward evangelism and ultimately our home in heaven (into the wilderness).

If this is the case, then earthly perfection is not man’s goal. Mere temporal prosperity, though good, is not his telos. Since the State is a worldly good composed of human beings, it follows that this association cannot truly fulfill man’s purpose alone. So, there is no perfect republic, no communist paradise. Paradise was lost, and God sent his Son to regain it. This motif has enormous significance for our overarching view of politics.

Against Idealism and for Augustinian Realism

Following liberal anthropology, the communist proposes that a selfless rule of the proletariat may be instituted to usher in utopos. A Christian sees that this view is broken because it attempts to instigate the Parousia before Christ, forcing the perfection of all things into before possibly perfectible. The humble motif in this scenario proves to be a glorious bulwark.

Corrupt humans cannot create something perfect because apart from Christ, they can never be perfect. Can a boy grow into a man without any external nurturing? Certainly not; he will die. Then how much truer is it for the entire body politic to perfect itself when it has within it the seed of sin? Indeed, even though Plato proposed an unrealizable government of philosopher-kings, he also saw that “all created things must decay, even a social order of this kind can last for all time, but will decline.”[3] In this dying world, nothing perfect can exist. The possibility of death is itself imperfection and is the penalty bestowed onto humanity for being imperfect. So, the entire temporal order is flawed and, left on itself, imperfectible. Any attempts to perfect it shall end in disaster; the twentieth century shows this much. Rejecting religion as the overarching narrative to inform one’s worldview will necessarily result in exalting lower things to deity, in most cases, the State.

Paul opposed destructive idealism when he wrote,

“We have not here a lasting city, but we seek one that is to come” (Hebrews 13:14).[4]

And he was correct. Rome, thought to be imperishable, collapsed in the fifth century after eons of glory. Charlemagne was crowned Emperor in 800, but his Empire died as Napoleon marched across Europe.

Augustine built off Paul’s realism and divided the human population between the City of God and the earthly city:

“…though there are very many and great nations all over the earth, whose rites and customs, speech, arms, and dress, are distinguished by marked differences, yet there are no more than two kinds of human society, which we may justly call two cities, according to the language of our Scriptures. The one consists of those who wish to live after the flesh, the other of those who wish to live after the spirit; and when they severally achieve what they wish, they live in peace, each after their kind.”[5]

But must these two cities exist entirely separately? Must religious freedom be constricted to freedom of theoretical belief that ceases outside of one’s mind? That would be a most absurd suggestion. Just as a beheaded man is not free but unfree to do anything because he is dead, a faithless State cannot exist without an animating philosophy. I have discussed this in more detail in another essay. We must accept an animating philosophy for the State while also noting that the State itself is doomed to destruction.

This dilemma is solvable by upholding general peace through dynamic political association.[6] Here, the city of man profits by fostering material wealth, and the City of God benefits as the peace allows man to pursue God unhindered.[7] Therefore, Christians should ardently work towards temporal peace and prosperity for the sake of the mortal and, more importantly, the spiritual good of their fellow man. Therefore, the Augustinian view is far from a passive approach to the current order – but it is not fantastic in its goals.


We can use the typological significance of the Church as Israel in her exodus from Egypt to draw many fecund observations. The Church is called out of the sinfulness under the “prince of this world” (John 12:31) on the grand pilgrimage to the Promised Land. But eradicating this notion of God reduces all to the temporal order, resulting in ill-advised utopian fantasies that hurt the very people they intend to posture. We must recognize the passing nature of fallen creation, acknowledge that the State is fundamentally imperfectible. It may be improvable, but its perfection by corrupt men is an unachievable dream. We must make the best of what we already have through wisdom accumulated over the ages. This Christian realist vision, which I attribute to Augustine, calls on us to live in peace among the earthly city to better grow in our faith and spread it elsewhere.  Had this Augustinian worldview been maintained, many of our problems would have likely been avoided.


[1] Cf. Ephesians 1:22-23

[2] See St. Augustine, On Christian Teaching, Book II

[3] Plato, The Republic, 546a; p. 279, translator: Desmond Lee, Penguin Classics, 2007 (2nd Edition).

[4] I say Paul because he was traditionally attributed as its author and the Council of Trent listed him as the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews when it defined the Biblical canon. This is, however, a moot point in relation to our present discussion.

[5] Augustine, The City of God, Book XIV.1, translator: Marcus Dods. This translation is available both online by the kind offices of Project Gutenberg and in a printed Random House edition.

[6] Aristotle, Politics, Book I.2

[7] Augustine, The City of God, Book XIX.26