Coercion and the Christian: Finding the Righteous Magistrate In the Political Thought of Augustine

December 31, 2017

Augustine certainly takes a dim view of the civic government of the earthly city, describing it as he does in The City of God as, despite being the “mistress of the nations,” itself “ruled by its lust of rule.” The civic state and its coercion is a product of the Fall, since without original sin, there would have been no need for force. Political authorities are often forced to do things which normally they would consider evil, such as torturing innocent victims to discover doubtful truth. Perhaps a natural response to this realism and cynicism Augustine has about the role of the state in the world would be to conclude that the Christian ruler himself necessarily has to engage in sin in order to fulfill his duties within the state. In fact, given what Augustine says about the earthly city, is there anything about how a Christian would occupy a position of political authority that would mark him out as a specifically “godly” ruler at all?

It is my task in this paper to demonstrate that there is, in fact, despite Augustine’s belief that the civic state in its coercive role is a result of the Fall, such a thing for Augustine as a specifically Christian sort of ruler who exerts the coercive power of the state to the glory of God without sinning in doing so, and additionally, to enumerate some of the chief characteristics of the godly ruler. There are two areas of Augustine’s thought which are particularly relevant here. Augustine in several places in his writings speaks of the nature of civic polity before the Fall, from which we can discern the characteristics and goals of the righteous man in a position of political authority. We can also draw a helpful comparison with Augustine’s writings on just war, since they show us his perspective on how the righteous should relate to the use of coercion to restrain the wicked.

Firstly, however, we must make an important distinction between the state, as such, and the “earthly city,” as described by Augustine. Frederic Loetscher argues convincingly that by the civitas terrena Augustine means not “the state,” as it has sometimes been translated, but rather the “city of the impious.” Examine Augustine’s treatment of Cicero’s definition of the state—that a true republic exists only when it is rightly and justly governed—in City of God 2.21: by this definition, Rome was never a state at all, since it was never justly governed. Rome was the prime example, for Augustine, of the earthly city, the city of the impious. Many have taken the latter facts as examples of Augustine’s exclusion of the state, (and by extension, we can assume, the office of the ruler himself) from any ethical justification for its existence. But Loetscher argues that Augustine uses this exclusion of Rome from Cicero’s definition of the state as a reductio for that definition, since Augustine himself goes on to define the state as “an assemblage of of reasonable beings bound together by a common agreement as to the objects of their love.”

What does this distinction between the state as a civic institution, and the “earthly city” as the society of the impious insofar as they act against the will of God, mean for our search for the godly ruler in Augustine’s thought? It means that the magistrate, insofar as he occupies a position of authority in the state, is not necessarily a member of the earthly city, or acting contrary to God’s law. As we shall see, insofar as he is in authority, he occupies a place which would have been necessary whether or not man had sinned. It is the evil of the rulers of Rome which marked them out as members of the earthly city, and not their status as rulers.

In several important writings, Augustine talks about the the shape of civic polity if the Fall had not taken place, from which we can discern the character of the righteous ruler. Were it not for the sin of greedy, wicked rulers, “all kingdoms would have been small, rejoicing in neighborly concord; and thus there would have been very many kingdoms of nations in the world, as there are very many houses of citizens in a city.” These kingdoms, moreover, would not have been ruled with political authority based on coercion, but with the paternal authority of the patriarchs. The characteristics of the righteous patriarchs ought to inform the Christian ruler now, after the Fall: in a letter to Marcellinus, Augustine speaks of the state as an enlarged family, language reminiscent of the previously quoted passages about the small, familial polities that would have existed if sin had not created the need for political authority and coercion. The righteous ruler is to exercise the duties of a “pious father,” and rules, “not from a love of power” (for power, in this sense, the libido dominandi, is a result of the Fall), but “from a sense of the duty they owe for others.” The just judge is not proud of his authority, but loves mercy.

However, in this fallen world, the magistrate, Christian or not, must exert coercive force as a result of sin. In our search for the character of the Christian ruler, we must ask how Augustine reconciles his previous description of what the Christian ruler should be, with his clear statements regarding the necessity of coercion. A useful parallel can be drawn here between just war and just government. War, made necessary by sin, is undertaken in order to restrain evildoers, just as the coercive power of the state is sometimes necessary to be borne by righteous men in order to restrain the wicked. John Langan argues that for Augustine, an essential element in the justification for war is the preservation and restoration of God’s order in the world. The righteous war is one that is undertaken in obedience to God. This is an important argument, because it connects the use of coercion in Augustine’s thought (in this case military, but the argument applies also to political coercion) to some positive end, rather than merely a force of necessity.

In a letter to Boniface, Augustine instructs that he “must not think that no one who serves as a soldier, using arms for warfare, can be acceptable to God.” He goes on to enumerate a number of soldiers in the Bible who were pleasing to God. War is waged for an end, to bring peace, not only to the world, but even “to those whom you defeat.” Political coercion, being directed towards the same end, and necessary for the same reason, can be viewed similarly. I must stress that for Augustine coercion, while an effect of the Fall, is not something that exists outside of God’s grace and will for his people in this present, fallen age. In other words, the way in which the Christian magistrate exercises coercion is not simply the same as the way in which a non-Christian magistrate does it, simply with more internal remorse for the cruel necessity of it all.

As John R. Bowlin argues, “politics for Augustine is never autonomous,” and that “without an infusion of grace these ordinary realities of political life will be put to use for the sake of ends that fall short of the good and the just.” Bowlin’s use of the word “autonomous” is clarifying here: if the Christian magistrate does not use coercion in a specifically Christian way, if it is not “transformed by grace” as he puts it, then it will be “transformed by vice.” The Christian ruler should exercise gentleness, although he has a duty to “give a cutting edge to the investigation in order to bring outrage to light.”

Why is this important for our original thesis, that there is for Augustine such a thing as a specifically Christian way to fill the necessary office of the magistracy? The fact that Augustine spends time in his letters speaking of how Christians in authority should use their power, and uses the scriptural language of good works, and displaying God’s mercy to the nations, clearly communicates that the coercive force of political authority is for Augustine not a purely secular result of the Fall, at best to simply be borne by Christians. Instead, the the office of a ruler is fraught with significance. The righteous ruler is to use his authority as a tool to advance God’s will in the world. He is to be merciful, acting as a pious father, taking his example from the patriarchs in the way in which he looks to provide peace to his people and restrain the wicked. The end of the righteous use of political authority is positive good, and insofar he fulfills this duty, the Christian magistrate is a member of, and advances the cause of, the city of God.


Bowlin, John R. “Augustine on Justifying Coercion.” The Annual of the Society of Christian Ethics 17 (1997): 49-70.

Langan, John. “The Elements of St. Augustine’s Just War Theory.” The Journal of Religious Ethics 12, no. 1 (1984): 19-38.

Loetscher, Frederick William. “St. Augustine’s Conception of the State.” Church History 4, no. 1 (1935): 16-42.

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Michael Helvey

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