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Karen Heller
Augustine on War

by Karen Heller

"Pax omnium rerum tranquilitatis ordinis – Peace, of all things, is the calm that comes of order" (Augustine, De Civ. Dei, XIX, 13). As Augustine began his most famous book, City of God, he was guided by two major experiences that he shared with many of his contemporaries. The first is linked to Constantine's Edict of Milan. This world-changing event led many people to the deep conviction that "only a strong government can assure people of peace and enable them to live without fear of social disorder." The second experience put this conviction sharply to the test, when Constantine's period of civil and religious peace was suddenly interrupted by the terrible sack of Rome committed by Alaric's Goths on Aug. 24, 410. The impact of this event may be compared to the impact on the modern world of the terrorist assault of Sept. 11, 2001: The fall of Rome marked the first wholly successful attack upon a civilization that had existed for more than 1,000 years.

Augustine had already spent 10 years of his life under the shadow of a difficult question: Would he subscribe to a Manichean worldview that identified one group of living beings with evil and another with the righteous who fight for the sake common good? Augustine left the Manicheans, coming to the conclusion that an ascetic lifestyle combined with moral righteousness was not the way to discover a satisfying answer to the question of good and evil. Tackling the works of Plato and Plotin, he confronted for the first time in his life the nature of "spirituality," the nature of man and God, and the question of what it means to give an answer to these realities. Augustine learned that truth is not only an intellectual certainty. Truth is a reality that calls each person to commit to a way of life that introduces order into every moment of his or her existence.

Confirmed by this experience, Augustine confronted the question of good and evil, peace and war, in a renewed way. In the City of God, Book XIX, Chapter 12, he wrestles with the nature of peace. Peace is a good pursued by all beings, including those who wage wars. The latter do not begin wars because they hate peace, but with the purpose to establish or impose "their" peace. At the end, Augustine comes to the conclusion that "peace, of all things, is the calm that comes of order." This, in turn, leads him to consider two essential issues: How may an everlasting order be established, guaranteeing an everlasting peace? And is it possible to confront the question of happiness in a world made of universal misery?

For Augustine, the City of God is in construction in the midst of ongoing human disasters. The Earthly City and the City of God are intertwined; they have in common the commitment to peace which comes from order. However, the difference between the members of the two cities is the way in which they realize this order. Some will use all things with a purpose that is proper to them; others will use them for the ultimate purpose of eternal peace. The first will speak and take action to support life in view of an ephemeral happiness; the others will speak and take action in order to meet an eternal and everlasting happiness. 

Heller is an associate professor of theology at Whitworth

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