This is Full Communism.
Augustine’s introspective posture in his famous (or, for some, infamous) Confessions has led to his adoption by individualists of every stripe. There is certainly philosophical merit to such an adoption, if for no reason other than his notable influence upon important historical “individualists,” e.g. certain prominent existentialists: Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Sartre, etc. If one were to consider the political ramifications of such a seemingly radical individualism, one might be led to suspect that Augustine would find himself comfortably situated in Liberalism, or perhaps even its more radical cousin, Libertarianism. Yet, in her Augustine and the Limits of Politics, Jean Bethke Elshtain makes the following observation:
“[For Augustine] there are two fundamentally different attitudes [caritas and cupiditas] evinced within human social life and enacted by human beings. One attitude is a powerful feeling of the fullness of life. A human being will not be denuded if he or she gives, or makes a gift of the self, to others. One’s dependence on others is not a diminution but an enrichment of self. The other attitude springs from cramped and cribbed pity, from resentment, from a penury of spirit. The way one reaches out or down to others from these different attitudes is strikingly distinct. From a spirit of resentment and contempt, one condescends toward the other; one is hostile to life itself.”*
What political lessons can be drawn from this profound dichotomy, from these two quite different loves? His existential-individuality aside, it is impossible to read here anything other than a critique of political-individuality. Simply put, Augustine was a communitarian. One might go so far as to say that President Obama’s infamous claim, “you didn’t build that,” a claim which the radical right has condemned as godless-communism with its chants of “I built this,” for Augustine, might simply be an advocation of Life-itself. For it is only as a community working together, even a community of individuals working together, that we can achieve the “fullness of life.” It is not through the myth of the self-made-man that we will attain the fulfillment of life, but on the contrary, through “dependence.” Perhaps, through this Augustinian insight, we can resurrect this term, “dependence,” a term which has become a dirty-word in American politics. And, while wedge issues like abortion and gay rights may continue to push large swaths of Christianity towards the right, Augustine may seek to remind us that Christianity is, at its source, a communitarian endeavor, a socio-religious experiment in communal living. Against the liberalism of the Democrats and the Libertarianism of the GOP, Augustine reminds us that Christianity’s love, its caritas, is always toward the other, the gift of the self, and the community.
*Elshtain, Jean Bethke. Augustine and the Limits of Politics. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press): 36.