Reinhold Niebuhr, a theologian and intellectual, once opined that “the tragedy of man is that he can conceive self-perfection but cannot achieve it.”1 Even though humans can envisage and conceptualize a perfect society, human existence appears to be a narrative of fallen kingdoms and empires. Although we have improved our systems of government and have developed inclusive declarations of human rights, perpetual strife and conflict remain. Problems of justice rear their ugly heads in different forms, causing discord in every century. In the grand scheme of human history, civilizations bear an uncanny resemblance to the humans who built them: beautiful, yet deeply flawed; brilliant, yet persistently ignorant; innovative, yet remarkably short-sighted. Human civilizations are simply that—human. Understanding the nature of human societies requires a reductionist approach; this involves examining the nature of their simplest units: the individuals that compose them. There are certain qualities that bind persons together and define human nature. If we can ascertain our nature, we can begin to understand what makes societies perpetually problematic.

Augustine of Hippo, a 4th-century Christian theologian and philosopher, gives an intimate and explanatory account of human nature from both a theological and personal perspective. While he chronicles his struggle with sin and his conversion to Christianity in his magnum opus, Confessions, it is in De civitate Dei, or The City of God, that Augustine gives us insight into the imperfection of human societies. He wrote The City of God in response to pagan claims that the capture of Rome in 410 CE was punishment for Rome’s conversion to Christianity.2 Rome was seen as a city that would last forever and where human perfectibility was an attainable ideal.3 In The City of God, Augustine posits ideas regarding human nature and original sin and explores the nature of politics. It is helpful, then, to look at the framework of Augustinian political thought to provide an explanatory account of our human nature and its relation to our stubbornly flawed political systems.

Augustine’s political philosophy is built on the idea that we cannot create a perfect political order here on Earth because human nature is inclined toward sin. Politics is largely motivated by a lust for power or rule, a libido dominandi, that results in a constant struggle for power.4 This forms the basis of the City of Man, or the Civitas Terrena, his conception of our human society, which can never attain perpetual peace or lasting justice. The City of God, or the Civitas Dei, on the other hand, is a place of perpetual peace and justice, but is only attainable in the next life. It is there that divine law would reign supreme. It is important to consider these ideas in more depth to understand whether Augustine’s sociological analysis is accurate, what implications it has for a Christian worldview, and what it means for us today.

The most fundamental part of any political system is the individual. Our political systems are reflections of us, and it is important to understand what we truly are. Augustine attributes our nature to the Fall of Man, or Original Sin. In the Christian tradition, Original Sin is man’s turning away from God “and making his own will and desires the center of his existence.”5 Due to Adam and Eve’s rebellion against God, human nature was ontologically changed; it became marred by concupiscence.6 Concupiscence, the core of our fallen nature, is defined by the Catechism of the Catholic Church as “the movement of the sensitive appetite contrary to the operation of the human reason.”7 Put simply, concupiscence is our inclination toward that which is sinful or evil, in direct opposition to our faculties of reason. Concupiscence itself is not a sin, but rather inclines humans toward it.8 From a theological perspective, concupiscence is a battle between our spirit and our bodily inclinations. Augustine writes that it is only through God’s grace that one can overcome concupiscence.9 Augustine also appealed to everyday experience to demonstrate the existence of concupiscence. After all, it is easy to be forgetful, lazy, or ignorant, but it is far harder to be attentive, hardworking, or knowledgeable.10

Augustine argues that because of concupiscence, we are a condemned lot, or a massa damnata, which renders us forever dysfunctional.11 We are by nature selfish due to concupiscence—naturally inclined to pursue our own ends. On the political scale, we wield power to achieve those selfish ends. Augustine contends that the state of political systems is therefore marked by the human lust for domination or power. Political systems are simply power struggles among groups vying for domination. We, too, in our own lives want to be powerful in every regard, however slightly: we desire to be stronger, more respected, and more successful than those around us. We are inclined to detest those that are better than us and envy those that have more than us; all of these are results of concupiscence. Since society is a collection of individuals like us, then society is a reflection of the predilections of the masses. If we are inclined to desire power, respect, and our self-interest in our daily lives and relationships, our political systems cannot be expected to resist that urge to dominate. For example, when considering our noble beginnings in the United States, we tend to brush aside the brute power hunger that characterized our treatment of Native Americans, the policy of Manifest Destiny, and our 18th-century imperialistic tendencies. Even in democracies, power subdues and conquers when wielded by the majority. Today, individuals in Congress continuously utilize unwavering obstructionism to maintain power for themselves and for their party.

In addition, concupiscence corrupts our virtues by providing ulterior motives for action. Niebuhr notes how humans have a unique ability to pursue power under the pretext of caring for others:

…men are inclined to take the moral pretensions of themselves or their fellowmen at face value; for the disposition to hide self-interest behind the façade of pretended devotion to values, transcending self-interest is well-nigh universal… Man is a curious creature with so strong a sense of obligation to his fellows that he cannot pursue his own interests without pretending to serve his fellowmen.12

The people who reject their self-loving, power-seeking nature and truly work for the common good are praised, and rightfully so, for their nobility and dedication to an ideal higher than their lives. But the harsh reality is that, taken on the whole, our concupiscence makes us selfish and power-hungry, translating to power struggles on a political scale.

The concept of concupiscence in relation to the imperfection of political systems and the idea of the two cities were analyzed and synthesized in Niebuhr’s book Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics. Niebuhr claims that although individuals can overcome their tendencies toward concupiscence (as Augustine would say is possible through the grace of God), large groups cannot do so. In essence, large groups will not be able to resist the impulses of concupiscence because of the impossibility of “establishing a rational social force” that can withstand natural inclinations.13 Societies are products of a collective egoism, a more amplified and more powerful egoism than that expressed by individuals.14 Niebuhr explains that “in every human group there is less reason to guide and to check impulse, less capacity for self-transcendence, less ability to comprehend the needs of others, therefore more unrestrained egoism than the individuals, who compose the group, reveal in their personal relationships.”15 Just as a team is only as good as its weakest link, a society too is only as good as the character of its weakest people. The ideas of Niebuhr’s books form the basis of the political idea now known as Christian realism, a political doctrine that has influenced multiple politicians in America from both sides of the aisle, including John McCain and Barack Obama.16 Christian realism claims that, as Augustine argued, a lasting and just political system reflective of God’s kingdom could never be established here on Earth because of the innately disordered tendencies of societies, which in turn came from the inability to resist the collective forces of concupiscence. In other words, the Civitas Dei, or anything that reflected it, was not possible. This was in stark contrast to the liberal idealism that was in vogue during Niebuhr’s time. Liberal idealism, adopted largely by Woodrow Wilson, claimed that human nature was intrinsically altruistic and that violence and other deplorable behavior was not the product of humanity’s flaws but rather evil institutions that promoted selfish action.17 It held that war, too, was not inevitable and could be reduced greatly by moral institutions.18 Wilson’s League of Nations arose out of this idea, and American exceptionalism is firmly planted in it. Niebuhr’s realism was the antithesis of liberal idealism, planting Niebuhr against the idea of human perfectibility. Indeed, historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote of Niebuhr:

[His] emphasis on sin startled my generation, brought up on optimistic convictions of human innocence and perfectibility. But nothing had prepared us for Hitler and Stalin, the Holocaust, concentration camps and gulags. Human nature was evidently as capable of depravity as of virtue. Niebuhr made us think anew about the nature and destiny of man… Ordained authority, he showed, is all the more subject to the temptations of self-interest, self-deception and self-righteousness. Power must be balanced by power.19

So, for those who accept the ideas of Augustine and Niebuhr, what is the right course of action? Augustine would say that any true believer in the City of God can only be a sojourner in the City of Man. Jesus Christ himself said, “My kingdom does not belong to this world,” and, “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”20 St. Peter echoes those sentiments, saying, “Be subject to every human institution for the Lord’s sake.”21 Augustine therefore argues that Christians must merely submit to their broken political regimes and not interfere with the government of the world, which imitates Christ’s tolerance and submission to earthly-ordained power. They should instead live intently for the City of God, where glory will come from God alone and where there will finally be a perpetual peace.

Taken as a whole, the ideas of Augustine provide an explanatory account of broken political systems throughout history. His account of human nature and the implications of his view, however, are highly pessimistic. Augustine minimizes the ability of humans to do good and combat concupiscence without God’s help. He is caught in a bind between a Manichaeistic view, which held that humans were by nature evil, and a Pelangianistic view, which argued that humans were free from the guilt of original sin and could attain moral perfection without divine help.22 Augustine’s view of human nature through concupiscence, though accurate, is influenced by Manichaeism, the school of thought to which he adhered before converting to Christianity.23 Likely due to this influence, he argues that humans need God’s grace to overcome our depraved nature and do good. This view, however, is hard to defend without falling into determinism. It is a contradiction to contend that we have both free will and the inability to choose to do good without the grace of God. Though concupiscence exists and weakens our free will by inclining us to sin, it is central to Catholic theology and divine justice that humans have the ability to do good from their own free choosing. To know and love God to the extent required by divine justice requires divine grace, but we, of our own free will, can overcome our inclinations and choose to accept the grace that allows us to be just. Thus, the Augustinian view underestimates the ability of humans to do good independently.

The Augustinian view also has pessimistic implications that, practically speaking, would render political systems unviable. The idea that people, especially Christians, should submit passively to their political regime and wait for the City of God would be pernicious to any social order. Indifference and nonchalance about what occurs in politics could lead to more suffering, corruption, and tyranny. Political engagement is the only means to prevent these atrocities from occurring. It is well-intentioned political activity and engagement that allows us to create relatively equitable societies. The City of God is a paradigm toward which people can meaningfully strive in their personal lives. Incorporating the social teaching of Jesus Christ into our daily lives could allow us to cultivate the values of a better society.

Despite the drawbacks to the pessimistic Augustinian view, however, its overall themes need to be addressed. Augustine’s pessimism is comforting in one way: he shows that our political structures are by nature imperfect, and therefore their failures are not caused by something of our own specific doing. On the other hand, admitting that human flaws preclude creating a political utopia fundamentally changes the posture by which one approaches the political realm. Without the burden of achieving institutional perfection, humans are free to pursue justice and peace within institutional deficiency. For the Christian, this means first and foremost focusing on the character of persons that comprise society. Augustine’s work, understood alongside the political ideology of Niebuhr, argued that the quality of society depends on the character and the nature of the people who compose it. They help us realize that the key to peace and justice, however imperfectly they may be realized, has to come from the good will of individuals. Indeed, if human character hinders society, it can also improve it. It therefore makes sense that Christ left no instructions for a political system. He did, however, instruct us to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength” and to “love your neighbor as yourself.”24 Properly living out these principles may not create the perfect society, but the Christian message assures us that it will create a virtuous one.

Jeffrey Poomkudy ’20 is from Old Westbury, New York. He is a prospective double major in Biology and Philosophy at Dartmouth.

  1. Alden Whitman, “Reinhold Niebuhr Is Dead; Protestant Theologian, 78,” The New York Times, 2 June 1971, PDF.
  2. Henry Paolucci, introduction to The Political Writings of St. Augustine, by St. Augustine (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 1962), xvii.
  3. Paolucci, introduction, xvii.
  4. Augustine, The City of God, trans. Marcus Dods (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2009), 3, digital file.
  5.  Herbert A. Deane, The Political and Social Ideas of St. Augustine (New York: Columbia University Press, 1963), 16.
  6. Augustine, City of God, 396.
  7. Catechism of the Catholic Church (New Delhi, Theological Publications in India, 2013), 2515.
  8.  Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2515.
  9.  Augustine, “On Grace and Free Will,” ed. Kevin Knight, trans. Peter Holmes and Robert Ernest Wallis, New Advent: The Fathers of the Church, accessed March 14, 2017, <http://www.newadvent. org/fathers/1510.htm>.
  10. St. Augustine, The Political Writings, ed. Henry Paolucci (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 1962), 3.
  11. “Original Sin,” in The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, ed. F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone, 3rd ed. (Oxford University Press, 2009), digital file.
  12.  Reinhold Niebuhr, The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr, ed. Robert McAfee Brown (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), 123, digital file.
  13.  Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1932), xxix, digital file.
  14. Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral, xxix.
  15.  Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral, xxix.
  16. Benedicta Cipolla, “Reinhold Niebuhr is Unseen Force in 2008 Elections,” Religion News Service, 27 September 2007, PDF.
  17. Michelle A. Benson, “Liberal Idealism,” Dr. Michelle A. Benson Personal Website, accessed 12 February 2017, <https://www.acsu.buffalo. edu/~mbenson2/PSC326.htm>.
  18. Benson, “Liberal Idealism.”
  19. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., “Reinhold Niebuhr’s Long Shadow,” The New York Times, 22 June 1992, <http://www.nytimes.com/1992/06/22/opinion/ reinhold-niebuhr-s-long-shadow.html>. 
  20. John 18:36 (NABRE); Mark 12:17 (NABRE). 
  21. 1 Peter 2:13 (NABRE).
  22. The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica, “Manichaeism,” in Encyclopedia Britannica (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1998), accessed 12 February 2017, <https://www.britannica.com/topic/ Manichaeism>; “Pelagius and Pelagianism,” in New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia, ed. Kevin Knight, accessed 12 February 2017, <http://www.newadvent. org/cathen/11604a.htm>. 
  23. Michael Mendelson, “Saint Augustine,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta. 21 December 2016, <https://plato.stanford. edu/archives/win2016/entries/augustine/>.
  24.  Mark 12:30-31 (NABRE).