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Augustine and the Limits of Politics

Augustine and the Limits of Politics

Jean Bethke Elshtain
Foreword by Patrick J. Deneen

Jean Bethke Elshtain brings Augustine’s thought into the contemporary political arena and presents an Augustine who created a complex moral map that offers space for loyalty, love, and care, as well as a chastened form of civic virtue. The result is a controversial book about one of the world’s greatest and most complex thinkers whose thought continues to haunt all of Western political philosophy.

What is our business “within this common mortal life?” Augustine asks and bids us to ask ourselves. What can Augustine possibly have to say about the conditions that characterize our contemporary society and appear to put democracy in crisis? Who is Augustine for us now and what do his words have to do with political theory? These are the underlying questions that animate Jean Bethke Elshtain’s fascinating engagement with the thought and work of Augustine, the ancient thinker who gave no political theory per se and refused to offer up a positive utopia. In exploring the questions, Why Augustine, why now? Elshtain brings Augustine’s thought into the contemporary political arena and presents an Augustine who created a complex moral map that offers space for loyalty, love, and care, as well as a chastened form of civic virtue. The result is a controversial book about one of the world’s greatest and most complex thinkers, one whose thought continues to haunt all of Western political philosophy.

In making Augustine’s thought relevant to the contemporary world Elshtain discusses how, for Augustine, wisdom comes from experiencing fully the ambiguity and division that characterized the human condition after the fall, and how human beings are fated to narrate their lives within temporality and to work at gathering together a ‘self’ and forging a coherent identity. This is the central feature of what Augustine called our business “within this mortal life,” and he insisted that any politics that disdains this business, this caring for the quotidian, is a dangerous or misguided or misplaced politics.

Elshtain argues that Augustine’s great works display a canny and scrupulous attunement to the here and now and the very real limits therein. She discusses other aspects of Augustine’s thought as well, including his insistence that no human city can be modeled on the heavenly city, and further elaborates on Hannah Arendt’s deep indebtedness to Augustine’s understanding of evil. Elshtain also presents Augustine’s arguments against the pridefulness of philosophy, thereby linking him to later currents in modern thought, including Wittgenstein and Freud.

ISBN: 978-0-268-02001-9
158 pages
Publication Year: 1995

Jean Bethke Elshtain (1941–2013) was the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Her books included Democracy on Trial (1995) and Real Politics: At the Center of Everyday Life (1997).

“[This] is a book that does much to rectify the kind of continuous injustice done Augustine by the modern secular world. People who have only a passing acquaintance with Augustine, and judge him mainly by prevailing attitudes, can learn much from Augustine and the Limits of Politics. . . . It is an intelligent, warm, and well-informed discussion.” — American Political Science Review

“This very engaging, very philosophical, and yet very personal book reintroduces Augustine to the heart of modern political philosophy. . . . All readers seriously interested in Augustine and responsive to him will welcome Elshtain’s book as a refreshing breeze.” — Theological Studies

“Professor Elshtain has written an engaged, impassioned and highly personal book chronicling her own engagements with the writings of St. Augustine, and her own attempts to apply Augustine’s political, social and ethical thought so as to make sense of present-day crises and anxieties.” — International Studies in Philosophy

“Elshtain attains rare achievement of a work that is both creatively erudite, and streamlined. An almost ‘fat-free’ volume, Augustine and the Limits of Politics is inter-disciplinary enough to recommend itself to a broad range of people, from political philosophers, to historians of thought, to theologians.” — Journal of Religion and Culture

“Elstain’s hope is to reach those, especially among political philosophers and theologians, who have rejected Augustinian philosophy because of what has become the unjust but widespread tradition that he is a pessimist, a misogynist, a narcissist, and irrelevant to contemporary problems. With passion, Elshtain argues that the time is ripe for a reconsideration of Augustine’s Confessions and City of God.” — Review of Metaphysics

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Augustine and the Limits of Politics

Jean Bethke Elshtain
Foreword by Patrick J. Deneen

 Augustine and the Limits of Politics
Paper Edition

Jean Bethke Elshtain brings Augustine’s thought into the contemporary political arena and presents an Augustine who created a complex moral map that offers space for loyalty, love, and care, as well as a chastened form of civic virtue. The result is a controversial book about one of the world’s greatest and most complex thinkers whose thought continues to haunt all of Western political philosophy.

What is our business “within this common mortal life?” Augustine asks and bids us to ask ourselves. What can Augustine possibly have to say about the conditions that characterize our contemporary society and appear to put democracy in crisis? Who is Augustine for us now and what do his words have to do with political theory? These are the underlying questions that animate Jean Bethke Elshtain’s fascinating engagement with the thought and work of Augustine, the ancient thinker who gave no political theory per se and refused to offer up a positive utopia. In exploring the questions, Why Augustine, why now? Elshtain brings Augustine’s thought into the contemporary political arena and presents an Augustine who created a complex moral map that offers space for loyalty, love, and care, as well as a chastened form of civic virtue. The result is a controversial book about one of the world’s greatest and most complex thinkers, one whose thought continues to haunt all of Western political philosophy.

In making Augustine’s thought relevant to the contemporary world Elshtain discusses how, for Augustine, wisdom comes from experiencing fully the ambiguity and division that characterized the human condition after the fall, and how human beings are fated to narrate their lives within temporality and to work at gathering together a ‘self’ and forging a coherent identity. This is the central feature of what Augustine called our business “within this mortal life,” and he insisted that any politics that disdains this business, this caring for the quotidian, is a dangerous or misguided or misplaced politics.

Elshtain argues that Augustine’s great works display a canny and scrupulous attunement to the here and now and the very real limits therein. She discusses other aspects of Augustine’s thought as well, including his insistence that no human city can be modeled on the heavenly city, and further elaborates on Hannah Arendt’s deep indebtedness to Augustine’s understanding of evil. Elshtain also presents Augustine’s arguments against the pridefulness of philosophy, thereby linking him to later currents in modern thought, including Wittgenstein and Freud.

ISBN: 978-0-268-02001-9

158 pages

“[This] is a book that does much to rectify the kind of continuous injustice done Augustine by the modern secular world. People who have only a passing acquaintance with Augustine, and judge him mainly by prevailing attitudes, can learn much from Augustine and the Limits of Politics. . . . It is an intelligent, warm, and well-informed discussion.” — American Political Science Review

“This very engaging, very philosophical, and yet very personal book reintroduces Augustine to the heart of modern political philosophy. . . . All readers seriously interested in Augustine and responsive to him will welcome Elshtain’s book as a refreshing breeze.” — Theological Studies

“Professor Elshtain has written an engaged, impassioned and highly personal book chronicling her own engagements with the writings of St. Augustine, and her own attempts to apply Augustine’s political, social and ethical thought so as to make sense of present-day crises and anxieties.” — International Studies in Philosophy

“Elshtain attains rare achievement of a work that is both creatively erudite, and streamlined. An almost ‘fat-free’ volume, Augustine and the Limits of Politics is inter-disciplinary enough to recommend itself to a broad range of people, from political philosophers, to historians of thought, to theologians.” — Journal of Religion and Culture

“Elstain’s hope is to reach those, especially among political philosophers and theologians, who have rejected Augustinian philosophy because of what has become the unjust but widespread tradition that he is a pessimist, a misogynist, a narcissist, and irrelevant to contemporary problems. With passion, Elshtain argues that the time is ripe for a reconsideration of Augustine’s Confessions and City of God.” — Review of Metaphysics

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