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Between Presumption and Despair: Augustine's Hope for the Commonwealth



Many political theorists dismiss Augustine as a pessimist about politics, assuming his “otherworldly” account of love precludes hope for this-worldly politics. This article challenges this pessimism by applying recent research on Augustine's “order of love” to reconstruct his implicit order of hope. Analyzing neglected sermons, letters, and treatises, I argue that Augustine encourages hope for temporal goods as long as that hope is rightly ordered and avoids the corresponding vices of presumption and despair. I then identify “civic peace” as a common object of hope that diverse citizens can share. By recovering hope as a virtue and reframing civic peace as a positive form of civic friendship, I argue that Augustine commends a hope for the commonwealth that avoids both presumption and despair. I conclude by analyzing how Augustine's vision of the commonwealth can inform contemporary political theory and practice.


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Michael Lamb is an Assistant Professor of Politics, Ethics, and Interdisciplinary Humanities, Wake Forest University, P.O. Box 7225, Winston-Salem, NC 27106, USA (


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For helpful conversation and feedback on previous versions of this paper, I am grateful to the editors, anonymous reviewers, and a number of friends and colleagues, including Robert M. Adams, Matthew Anderson, Alexis Andres, Nancy Bedford, Nigel Biggar, John Bowlin, Edward Brooks, Peter Busch, Paul Camacho, Andrew Chignell, Joseph Clair, Kody Cooper, Molly Farneth, Steven Firmin, Allan Fitzgerald, Andrius Galisanka, Eric Gregory, Paul Griffiths, Davey Henreckson, Joshua Hordern, Kristen Deede Johnson, Bolek Kabala, Melissa Lane, Sean Larsen, Philip Lorish, Stephen Macedo, Charles Mathewes, Christina McRorie, Ashleen Mechaca-Bagnulo, Samuel Newlands, Anne Norton, Joshua Nunziato, Matthew Puffer, Veronica Roberts, Cameron Silverglate, Sarah Stewart-Kroeker, Jeffrey Stout, Daniel Strand, Adam Thomas, Melanie Webb, Brian Williams, and audiences at the Northeast Political Science Association (2011), the American Academy of Religion (2014), the University of Oxford Christian Ethics Graduate Research Seminar (2014), a manuscript workshop at High Point University (2015), the International Conference on Patristic Studies at the University of Oxford (2015), L'Arca delle Virtù Conference at the University of Pavia (2017), the Hope & Optimism seminar at Cornell University (2017), and the Augustine and Politics Reading Group at the University of Oxford (2018). For support of this research, I wish to thank the Princeton University Department of Politics and University Center for Human Values, Josephine de Karman Fellowship Trust, Templeton World Charity Foundation, Oxford Character Project, McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics, and Public Life at the University of Oxford, and Wake Forest University.



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