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Augustine's Punishments

  • Peter Iver Kaufman (a1)


During Augustine's life, government authorities were generally friendly to the Christianity he came to adopt and defend. His correspondence mentions one imperial magistrate in Africa, Virius Nicomachus Flavianus, a pagan vicar of Africa who seemed partial to Donatist Christians whom Augustine considered secessionists. Otherwise, from the 390s to 430, assorted proconsuls, vicars, and tribunes sent from the imperial chancery and asked to maintain order in North Africa were willing to enforce government edicts against Donatists and pagans. To an extent, Augustine endorsed enforcement. He was troubled by punitive measures that looked excessive to him, yet scholars generally agree with Peter Burnell that Augustine unambiguously approved punitive judgments as an “unavoidable” necessity. But Burnell and others seem to make too much of it: Augustine's position on punishment supposedly indicates that he posited “an essential continuity” (rather than emphasized the contrast) between “any given state” and the celestial or “eschatological” city of God.



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1 See Augustine, epistle 87,8. For Augustine's work, I consulted the relevant volumes of the Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina. All translations are mine. For Flavianus, see von Haehling, Raban, Die Religionszugehörigkeit der hohen Amsträger des romischen Reiches seit Constantins I Alleinherrschaft bis zum Ende der theodosianischen Dynastie (Bonn: Habelt, 1978) 573 . For the mix of officials in North Africa and “la vitalité de la vie politique et des institutions dans le premier tiers du Ve siècle,” see Lepelley, Claude, “L'Afrique à la veille de la conquête Vandale,” Antiquité tardive 10 (2002) 6172 . Although authorities were favorable to catholic Christianity, when Augustine became one of its bishops in the 390s, the municipal authorities in his see may have been Donatists, as Christoph Hugoniot suspects; see Hugoniot's, Les legats du proconsul d'Afrique à la fin du IVe siècle et au début du Ve ap. J.-C. à la lumière des sermons et lettres d'Augustin,” L'Africa romana 14 (2002) 2067–87, at 2084. Most prominent among the indigenous African officials with close connections to Donatist prelates, Gildo, appointed to oversee provincial affairs by Emperor Theodosius I, withheld grain shipments to Rome and died a rebel in the late 390s.

2 Burnell, Peter, The Augustinian Person (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2005) 136–66, at 148 and 159. Christoph Horn argues that forms of domination and punishment, although regrettable and “morally inadequate,” were, for Augustine, “functionally necessary” (moralisch inadäquat aber funktional notwendig) (“Augustinus über politische Ethik und legitime Staatsgewalt,” in Augustinus: Recht und Gewalt [ed. Cornelius Meyer and Guntram Förster; Würzburg: Echter Verlag, 2010] 49–72). In what follows, I discuss other studies of Augustine's positive take on punitive measures and political life, but John von Heyking's review concludes that Burnell's book “takes the strongest view,” connecting public policy with political theology (“Decorating and Deforming the Universe with Man's Moral Beauty: Recent Interpretations of Augustine's Political Thought,” The Review of Politics 69 [2007] 668–80, at 677).

3 For other essays that concentrate on Augustine's punishments, see Houlou, Alain, “Le droit penal chez saint Augustin,” Revue historique de droit français étranger 52 (1974) 529 ; McConnell, Terrance C., “Augustine on Torturing and Punishing an Innocent Person,” Southern Journal of Philosophy 17 (1979) 481–92; Breyfogle, Todd, “Punishment,” in Augustine Through The Ages (ed. Fitzgerald, Allan D.; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999) 688–90; and von Heyking, John, “Augustine on Punishment and the Mystery of Human Freedom,” in The Philosophy of Punishment and the History of Political Thought (ed. Karl Koritansky, Peter; Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2011) 5473 .

4 For “complementary roles,” see Harries, Jill, Law and Empire in Late Antiquity (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999) 148–49. For “robust civic liberalism,” see Gregory, Eric, Politics and the Order of Love: An Augustinian Ethic of Democratic Citizenship (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008) 355 .

5 Augustine, De excidio Urbis Romae 8.9. For the Vandals’ part in divine penology, see Stoll, Brigitta, “Die Vita Augustinini des Possidius als hagiographischer Text,” Zeitschrift für Kirchengeschichte 102 (1991) 113 , at 7–8.

6 Augustine, De civitate Dei 21,4.

7 Ibid. 21,23; Augustine, Enchiridion de fide, spe, et caritate, 112.

8 Augustine, Contra litteras Petiliani 2.89,194.

9 Augustine, epistle 69,1. See also Augustine, sermon 181,6.8.

10 Augustine, epistle 185,21–24 (poena corporis ad Evangelium coactus intravit; 185,22).

11 Augustine, In Evangelium Johannis tractatus 13,6.

12 Augustine, epistles 87,7 and 93,1.

13 Tholen, Ivonne, Die Donatisten in die Predigten Augustins: Kommunikationslinien des Bischofs von Hippo mit seinen Predigthören (Berlin: LIT, 2010) 170–71.

14 See Augustine, sermon 46,37 (exire haereticarum est) and Augustine, Vingt-six sermons au peuple d'Afrique (ed. François Dolbeau; Paris: Institut d’Études Augustiniennes, 1996) sermon 2,22.

15 Augustine, In Evangelium Johannis tractatus 10,9 and 13,14. When some Donatists welcomed the blows with words from Jesus's Sermon on the Mount, “blessed are the persecuted,” Augustine offered a clarification worth quoting at length: “If suffering punishment were always worthy of praise, it would have sufficed for God to have said ‘blessed are the persecuted’ without adding ‘for the sake of righteousness.’ Similarly, if persecuting were always worthy of blame, why would the psalmist say, ‘I will persecute the one who whispers ill of a neighbor’? Thus, sometimes one who is persecuted is unrighteous, and the persecutor is righteous. Assuredly, the wicked always persecute the good. The wicked injure [nocendo] the good unjustly. But the good look after the wicked [consulendo] to discipline them. . . . In all this, we should take motivation into consideration to find out who acted for the truth, who acted unfairly, who punished to harm, and who punished to correct”; Augustine, epistle 93,2,8. Also see Augustine, sermon 94a,1: non enim facit martyrem poena, sed causa; the cause motivating one to die and not the punishment (or death) makes one a martyr.

16 Augustine, epistles 93,5.17; 100,1; and 185,7.26. For iniquitas, see Augustine, sermon 27,6.

17 Augustine, epistle 134,3.

18 Augustine, epistle 100,2; Magalhães de Oliviera, Júlio César, “Ut majores pagani non sint: Pouvoir, iconoclasm, et action populaire à Carthage au début du Ve siècle,” Anitquité Tardive 14 (2006) 253–54.

19 Augustine, Confessiones 5,6.10–5,7.13. Also see Augustine's sermons 232,2 and 252,4.

20 Imperatori Theodosiani Codex, 16.5.40.

21 Augustine, De Genesi ad litteram 1,21.41: qui calumniari Libris nobis salutis affectant.

22 Augustine, De civitate Dei 2,21 and 5,15.

23 Augustine, Confessiones 6,6.9.

24 See Augustine, De civitate Dei 19,6; Augustine Enarrationes in Psalmos 51,1; and compare Dodaro, Robert, Christ and the Just Society in the Thought of Augustine (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008) 192 .

25 Augustine, epistle 153,16; Augustine, De civitate Dei 22,22.

26 Augustine, epistle 153,21-22. Von Heyking, “Augustine on Punishment,” 56–57 is tempted to think that Augustine occasionally looked to political authority to induce [the] love of justice” as well as a fear of punishment; Breyfogle, “Punishment” 689 does not include “love of justice” as one of the “incidental benefits to the common good” that derive from punitive policy.

27 Augustine, epistle 153,23–24.

28 For punishment, in God's time, see Augustine, Enarrationes in Psalmos 77,39–41.

29 For the irritation, see Albert Février, Paul, “Discours d’Église et realité historique dans les nouvelles lettres de Saint Augustin,” in Lettres de Saint Augustin découvertes par Johannes Divjak (ed. Divjak, Johannes; Paris: Études Augustiniennes, 1983) 107 . Salamito, Jean-Marie (Les virtuoses et la multitude: Aspects sociaux de la controverse entre Augustin et les pélagiens [Grenoble: Millon, 2005] 240–41 and 299) and Lepelley, Claude (“Augustin face à la christianisation de l'Afrique romaine: Le refus des illusions,” in Le problème de la christianisation du monde antique [ed. Inglebert, Hervé; Paris: Picard, 2010] 269–79, 273–74) refer to Augustine's opposition to pelagians’ ascetic, “aristocratic . . . project of perfection” as well as his appreciation that Christianity was inclusive—or permixta—welcoming the disciplined and those in need of discipline. The inference is that he should have welcomed any opportunity his court or “audience” provided to judge, punish, and correct as well as to advocate clemency, for which, see Alain Houlou, “Droit penal” 22–23. Also see Lamoreaux, John C., “Episcopal Courts in Late Antiquity,” JECS 3 (1995) 143–67, especially 146–49, for Constantine's “generous provisions” and the subsequent “scaling back.”

30 Augustine, De opere monachorum,37: tumultuosissimas perplexitates causarum alienarum pati de negotiis saecularibus.

31 Augustine, Enarrationes in Psalmos 25,2.13.

32 Augustine, epistle 48,1.

33 Augustine, epistle 115,1.

34 Augustine, Enarrationes in Psalmos 118,24.3. (But Augustine did not think it improper to appeal to magistrates to retrieve church property seized by Donatists [epistle 93,11]). Malefactors of various sorts surfaced in bishops’ courts, and Augustine found himself rebuking colleagues who were reluctant to apply corporal punishment. The case in question involved a rapist apparently too reputable to receive a beating from secular authorities. For the opposition to corporal punishment, see Lamoreaux, “Episcopal Courts,” 162, but also note the observation that bishops often ordered flogging (Augustine, epistle 133,2); for the rape, see Augustine, epistle 9*,2.

35 Augustine, epistle 20*. For the details and for Augustine's embarrassment, see Dossey, Leslie, Peasant and Empire in Christian North Africa (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010) 137–38and Evers, Alexander, Church, Cities, and People: A Study of the Plebs in the Church and the Cities of Roman Africa in Late Antiquity (Leuven: Peeters, 2010) 254–55. For Augustine's remarks on prelates’ ambitions, usque ad finem saeculi, see epistle 208,2. Also, on that count, see Eck, Werner, “Der Episkopat im spätantiken Afrika: Organisatorische Entwicklung, soziale Herkunft, und öffentliche Funktionen,” Historische Zeitschrift 236 (1983) 265–95, 293–95.

36 Augustine, epistle 20*, 11.

37 Augustine, epistle 20*,26. Criticism of the appointment and of Augustine's reluctance to condemn Antoninus more emphatically at first almost certainly surfaced. Paul Février is sure (sans doute) that Augustine's narrative is his answer to critics [“Discours d’Église historique dans les nouvelles lettres de saint Augustin,” in Les lettres de saint Augustin découvertes par Johannes Divjak (ed. Johannes Divjak; Paris: Études Augustiniennes, 1983). On Augustine's “leniency,” also see Lenski, Noel E., “Evidence for the Audientia episcopalis in the New Letters of Augustine,” in Law, Society, and Authority in Late Antiquity (ed. Mathisen, Ralph W.; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001) 97 ].

38 Harries, Law and Empire 135–42, 150-52. For those “harsh realities,” see Ammianus Marcellinus's account of punishments calculated to display government authority by piling one hardship upon another (consarcinare . . . aerumnas), Rerum Gestarum 28,1.10-13.

39 Augustine, epistle 103,4.

40 Augustine, sermon 302,16 and Augustine, De civitate Dei 1,21.

41 Augustine, De civitate Dei 19,16.

42 Heyking, Von, “Augustine on Punishment” 61 and 69–70; Charles Mathewes, The Republic of Grace: Augustine's Thoughts for Dark Times (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010) 4951 .

43 Lepelley, Consult Claude, “Saint Augustin et la voix des pauvres: Observations sur son action social en faveur des déshérités dans la région d'Hippone,” in Les Pères de l’Église et la voix des pauvres (ed. Pascal-Grégoire, ; Grenoble: Association Histoire et Culture, 2006) 203–16, 211–13; Lepelley, “Augustin face à la christianisation de l'Afrique romaine” 272; and Gregory, Eric, Politics and the Order of Love: An Augustinian Ethic of Democratic Citizenship (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008) 355 .

44 Horn, “Augustinus über politische Ethik” 51–52, commenting on Augustine, De civitate Dei 19,15, from which the quote is taken.

45 Augustine, De civitate, Dei 21,14.

46 Augustine, epistle 95,3-4.

47 Smith, James K. A., “The Politics of Desire: Augustine's Political Phenomenology,” in Augustine and Postmodern Thought (ed. Boeve, L., Lamberigts, M., and Wisse, M.; Leuven: Peeters, 2009) 211–35, 217.

48 Hollingsworth, Miles, The Pilgrim City: St Augustine of Hippo and his Innovation in Political Thought (London: Clark, 2010) 155 ; Langton, Rae, “Duty and Desolation,” Philosophy 67 (1992) 481505 , at 501–503.

49 For example, Augustine, Enarrationes in Psalmos 30.2,6.

50 Augustine, Vingt-six sermons 26,44.

51 Augustine, Vingt-six sermons, 56: Quae vero peccata per cottidianae vitae consuetudinem cottidie subrepunt, et quasi de maris fluctibus hujus saeculi per quandam nostram infirmitatem subintrare non cessant, bonis operibus sentinate, ne naufragium patiamini. The pagans, to whom Augustine referred, were no doubt moralists remaining faithful to the old cults rather than rustic idolaters. For the relatively new application of the term in the late fourth century, see the still valuable Émilienne Demougeot, De l'unité a la division de l'empire romain, 395-410 (Paris: Adrien-Maisonnueve, 1951) 80–81.

52 Augustine, epistle 95,2.

53 Augustine, epistle 140,19: quid . . . exspectare, quid desiderare, quid poscere debeam.

54 Augustine, Enarrationes in Psalmos 145,6.

55 Augustine, epistle 140,53, quoting 1 John 4:18.

56 Augustine, epistle 50.

57 See Hermanowicz, Erika T., “Catholic Bishops and Appeals to the Imperial Court: A Legal Study of the Calama Riots in 408,” JECS 12 (2004), 481521 , at 495 and 520.

58 Augustine, epistle 134,3.

59 Augustine, epistle 100,2.

60 Augustine, epistle 91,9. Nectarius was long thought to have been a pagan, and there is still substantial support for that view. See Shaw, Brent D., Sacred Violence: African Christians and Sectarian Hatred in the Age of Augustine (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011) 252 , but Hermanowicz, “Catholic Bishops” 497–98 suspects that he was “most likely a Christian.” Rebillard, Eric, Christians and Their Many Identities in Late Antiquity, North Africa, 200–450 CE (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012) 8384 , 92–95 argues that most Christians were seldom as consistently devout as their bishops expected them to be and suggests that Nectarius was “intermittent[ly]” a Christian. Perhaps that would correspond with the notion that he was also a “semi-pagan,” for which see Perreau-Saussine, Emile, “Heaven as a Political Theme in Augustine's City of God ,” in Paradise in Antiquity (ed. Bockmuehl, Markus and Stroumsa, Guy S.; Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010) 179 . Whether Christian, pagan, semi-pagan, or something sui generis, Nectarius did hold a position quite contrary to Augustine's, that civic piety and Christianity were consistent, “complementary” paths to heaven, as Burnell indicated.

61 See Dodaro, Robert, “Augustine's Secular City,” in Augustine and His Critics (ed. Dodaro, and Lawless, George; London: Routledge, 2000) 235–59. In “Patience and/or Politics: Augustine and the Crisis at Calama, 408–409,” Vigiliae Christianae 57 (2003) 22–35, I take issue with Dodaro's interpretation but agree with him that colleagues who depict Augustine's position on punishment as a contemptible bid for Christianity's “political control” over the terrestrial cities are mistaken. For that assessment, consult Connolly's, William F. The Augustinian Imperative: The Politics of Morality (Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1993) 7374 and 111–12.

62 Augustine, epistle 104,12.

63 Compare Augustine, epistle 104,13 (ab illa patria veritatis et beatitatis nos longe exsules mitteret) with Augustine, epistle 153,18-19.

64 Augustine, Enarrationes in Psalmos 145,1 (Fideli homini et peregrinans in saeculo nulla est iucundior recordatio quam civitatis illius unde peregrinatur; sed recordatio civitatis in peregrinatione non est sine dolore atque suspiro.) Also see Augustine, De civitate Dei 19,6. For early Christians’ outcast status, see Dassmann, Ernst, “ Fuga Saeculi: Aspekte frühchristlicher Kulturkritik bei Ambrosius und Augustinus,” in Weg der Theologie: An der Schwelle zum dritten Jahrtausend (ed. Waldenfels, Hans et al.; Paderborn: Bonifatius, 1996) 939–50, 941.

65 Foucault, Michel, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (trans. Alan Sheridan; New York: Random House, 1995) 130 .

66 Dodaro, Robert, “Augustine's Revision of the Heroic Ideal,” Augustinian Studies 36 (2005) 146–48 acknowledges that Augustine thought nothing of stressing these “radical” discontinuities as the Pelagian controversy progressed.

67 Smith, “Politics of Desire,” discusses—without endorsing—the image of Augustine as an “accommodationist.” Among the best defenses of Augustine's willingness to accommodate, in part, and evangelize existing political norms, see Horn, “Augustinus über politische Ethik”; Gregory, Politics and the Order of Love; and Dodaro, Robert, “ Ecclesia and Res Publica: How Augustinian are Neo-Augustinian Politics?” in Augustine and Postmodern Thought: A New Alliance against Modernity? (ed. Boeve, L., Lamberigts, M., and Wisse, M.; Leuven: Peeters, 2009) 237–71.

68 Wetzel, James, “Snares of Truth: Augustine on Free Will and Predestination,” in Augustine and His Critics (ed. Dodaro, Robert and Lawless, George; London: Routledge, 2000) 121141 , at 138. Also consult Fortin, Ernest, “Political Idealism and Christianity in the Thought of Saint Augustine,” in Classical Christianity and the Political Order: Reflections on the Theologico-Political Problem (ed. Benestad, J. Brian; London: Rowman and Littlefield, 1996) 3163 , at 45–46.

69 Augustine, De civitate Dei 14,4 and 19,24.

70 Augustine, epistle 153,18: “commendatio mansuetudinis ad conciliandam dilectionem verbo veritatis.”

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