Reading Notes Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (part 7, Augustine)

For Aristotle justice belonged to the polis. For Augustine, justice was for all. This is largely because of the differences in the way their respective traditions conceived of boundaries. For Aristotle the city-state was the basic political unit. It set the boundaries of justice. For Augustine the Christian “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” The earthly city might have boundaries, but the city of God which is the end goal of creation is universal.

God chooses Israel, but to bless all the nations. The Noahide code is given to everyone. The Ten Commandments, while perhaps given primarily for adult-male Israelites, also encompasses a vision of a universal justice. Israel shall have no other gods, because there are no other gods. The prophets picture all of the nations streaming to Zion, God will judge all the earth.

Within the Israelite tradition justice is following the divine law, injustice is disobedience to that law.

As Christianity was born out of the Old Testament tradition, it kept the law, but the law was subordinated to Christ. Grace and faith became the prerequisites of belonging to the universal community of God. The took on a different shape, and more the disposition of one’s heart was emphasized more than obedience itself. It wasn’t just that one did what was right, one desired to do what is right in God’s eyes.

The problem is that our wills are damaged by sin. Such that we desire the wrong things, or we know what is right but our wills lead us in a different direction. What’s needed then is an infusion of the grace of God attained through the sacrifice of Christ to restore our wills to a state of freedom to choose the good for God’s sake. Justice requires that the individual actors be within a state of grace, which required being in communion with the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

Augustine’s true innovation when it comes to justice and practical reason is his emphasis upon the will, which was a significant psychological turn in moral philosophy. Augustine subordinated reason to the will, in fact the intellect itself cannot be moved except by the will. For Aristotle man is a rational animal, for Augustine man is a willing animal.

When the will is properly functioning it is directed toward the knowledge and love of God, which is humility. When the will is damaged by sin it is directed toward the love of self, which is pride. Only God’s grace can rescue the human will from it’s prideful orientation. “Augustine affirms both the necessity of grace for the redirection of the will and the necessity of the will’s freely assenting to the divine grace” (157). This is a paradox of Augustinian Christianity.

For Augustine, acting justly is the graced human will directed toward the love and knowledge of God within the city of God. Rationality is secondary and retrospective. Right thinking follows right willing. Faith precedes understanding. Justification for the rationality of a particular action can only come after the fact. Was it rational for Abraham to bind Isaac? Abraham desired to obey and please God and so he acted in obedience to the command – satisfying divine justice – but it was only after the fact, when God provided the ram for the sacrifice and reconfirmed his covenant with Abraham that we can say that he acted rationally.

Divine justice is universal and all are equally under its demands. Divine justice also requires that society be ordered in such a way that each person is free to fulfill his or her vocation within the city of God. Hence, in the West you have papal authority being asserted against the abuses of kings and princes in the ecclesiastical affairs. Bishops must not be slaves of the prince of their realm, they must be free to teach the faith and shepherd their flock. Justice requires the proper kind of freedom.

For Augustine, to act justly was to act in accordance the demands of one’s station within the city of God. To fail to do so was injustice. Injustice is disobedience.

Augustine and Aristotle differ on several points: 1) the city of God is all-inclusive, the polis excludes everyone who isn’t a citizen. 2) Augustine’s chief virtues are humility and charity. These don’t register in Aristotle’s scheme. Aristotle’s highest type of human is the magnanimous man. For Augustine it is the saint. 3) Aristotle’s schema has no place for the will, for Augustine their can be no right acting or right thinking without right willing. 4) Aristotle’s telos terminates in the city of Man, Augustine’s telos is God himself.

Given that these two systems are so different, it’s a wonder that anyone thought to bring them together. But that’s just what Thomas Aquinas did in the 13th century.

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