Monday, March 9, 2020

Augustine on the Desire for Empire

As he commented on the rise and fall of the Roman Empire and critiqued the values of pagan Rome, Augustine made the following observation on the desire for imperial expansion.
"Let them ask, then, whether it is quite fitting for good men to rejoice in extended empire. For the iniquity of those with whom just wars are carried on favors the growth of a kingdom, which would certainly have been small if the peace and justice of neighbors had not by any wrong provoked the carrying on of war against them; and human affairs being thus more happy, 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. Therefore, to carry on war and extend a kingdom over wholly subdued nations seems to bad men to be felicity, to good men necessity. But because it would be worse that the injurious should rule over those who are more righteous, therefore even that is not unsuitably called felicity. But beyond doubt it is greater felicity to have a good neighbor at peace, than to conquer a bad one by making war. Your wishes are bad, when you desire that one whom you hate or fear should be in such a condition that you can conquer him." (Augustine, The City of God, 4.15)
In other words, Augustine argues that when done justly (in response to the iniquity and aggression of your neighbors), imperial expansion might be necessary and better than the alternatives. But the desire of the good man is not imperial expansion, even when done justly. The good man desires peaceful harmony and contentment among the nations.

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