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Elshtain, Augustine, and Just War (again)

I’m at work now on the early stages of a longer piece that promises to revisit the arguments leading up to (and following) the invasion of Iraq in 2003. I’m especially interested in evaluating arguments that attempted to interpret American actions using the framework of just war theory. From everything I’ve read recently on the sad and untimely passing of Jean Elshtain (RIP), it would seem that for many of us such questions have been settled, at least in a temporary and contingent way. It has been ten years since 2003, though, and I think it’s time to go back and “unsettle” some things. 

I’m a political theorist, and I’ve written on Augustine. I was therefore intrigued and challenged by what I read in Elshtain’s book Just War Against Terror (Basic Books, 2003), about an allegedly “Augustinian” justification for force:

For early Christians like Augustine, killing to defend oneself alone was not enjoined: It is better to suffer harm than to inflict it. But the obligation of charity obliges one to move in another direction: to save the lives of others, it may be necessary to imperil and even take the lives of their tormentors. (p. 57)

I’m going to skip over the issue of attribution and origin, although I have to emphasize that I’m unfamiliar with any place in scriptural or patristic sources that makes this kind of argument. Particularly intriguing to me is the conceptual juncture that stands  between nonviolent passivity in the case of one’s own life, and potentially aggressive action on behalf of others. Leaving aside the issue of just war for just a moment, I’ve heard an argument of this kind made on behalf of gun ownership in the American context: the properly “Christian” justification for carrying a weapon is not self-defense, but the defense of others. In other words, I’m not carrying this gun to protect myself, but to protect innocents around me.

As noble as this sounds – and to return to the position that Elshtain attributes to the just war tradition – there is a problem with this kind of argument. Without essentializing too much, the principle of self-defense has a pragmatic, practical, utilitarian aspect that leads many of us in the modern world to attribute to it a kind of “natural” quality. If one is attacked – either as an individual or a political entity – it’s as if one reacts rather than responds. To be sure, there’s a certain amount of conceptual room in which we can talk about the nature of the threat – is it happening? is it imminent? or is it merely forecast for some future time? – but when it comes to self-defense the reaction seems almost automatic. When it comes to the defense of others, this instantaneous reaction (fight/flight) becomes abstracted somewhat, and in the space of that abstraction, a danger emerges. That danger concerns what Augustine called superbia or pride. Beneath the veil of disinterested charity lurks the machinery of a subtle equation that (once more) highlights and prioritizes the self, this time as a heroic figure in the eyes of others. Augustine critiqued the Roman value of civic virtue on this very principle. The Roman example also showed that allegedly selfless, heroic action could be unspeakably cruel.

This is so because once one garners a reputation for heroic and “selfless” action, one grows fond of that reputation and identifies with it. In the worst instances (e.g. George Zimmerman), one builds up an imaginary world the populated with innocents (who need protection) and the “bad guys” who prey on them. One’s role in that world becomes frighteningly clear. The bad guys are motivated by hate and must be defeated. What in the case of self-defense would have been a single, natural, reaction becomes ramified and conceptualized into a system of thought and force that requires further vigilance. One’s own violence becomes in a sense invisible, again not as an “animal” reaction to an instantaneous blow, but as a systematic attack on what Elshtain calls the “tormentors” of the innocent. In this way, and in an ironic and uncanny manner, the “selfless” response can generate a level of force that is even more brutal and sustained than mere action/reaction.

The Augustine that I know and understand isn’t a theorist of (or apologist for) clear and decisive action in pursuit of evildoers. To be blunt, he is instead an expert diagnostician of the way in which fallen human beings lie to themselves, and to each other. He’s an insightful analyst of the way in which caritas becomes superbia. In this way his vision represents a profound challenge to the principles and actions carried out in March 2003, rather than a “just war” apology for them.

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I wonder why Elshtain thought that Augustine was against physical self-defense.  I'm certainly no Augustine expert, but I've never before seen that view even attributed to him by others.  Is it a Protestant interpretation or something like that?

Although it seems a bit off-topic, I couldn't help but think of Antoinette Tuff, the school secretary in Georgia, who very recently convinced a well-armed teenaged assasain not to carry out his plan to murder classrooms full of children. What would have happened if she'd immediately pulled out her own handgun?

You can argue that she might not have been as successful with a more determined/deranged potential assasain, but that just brings up the familiar question: Why is it so easy in the U.S. for mentally-ill people to get their hands on guns? (Not to mention arsenals full of ammunition.)

And does possessing more weapons than anyone - an individual or a country - could possibly need for self-defense ensure that violence will emerge as the first and best response to any threat?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Elshtain's characterization of just war reasoning is correct. The first to make this argument is St. Ambrose, in On the Duties of the Clergy, Book I, no. 36:

“The glory of fortitude, therefore, does not rest only on the strength of one's body or of one's arms, but rather on the courage of the mind. Nor is the law of courage exercised in causing, but in driving away all harm. He who does not keep harm off a friend, if he can, is as much in fault as he who causes it. Wherefore holy Moses gave this as a first proof of his fortitude in war. For when he saw an Hebrew receiving hard treatment at the hands of an Egyptian, he defended him, and laid low the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. Solomon also says: ‘Deliver him that is led to death.’”

For Augustine, a relevant passage is Letter 47, no. 5:

"As to killing others in order to defend one's own life, I do not approve of this, unless one happen to be a soldier or public functionary acting, not for himself, but in defence of others or of the city in which he resides, if he act according to the commission lawfully given him, and in the manner becoming his office."

Richard Miller has a good discussion of these distinctions between self/other and private/public in his book Interpretations of Conflict.

Also, I am not sure why the fact that someone might be tempted by pride in defending others would be a reason that Augustine would advise against it. Anything good can be corrupted. This is the basis of Augustine's distinction between the pagan Romans, who governed in pursuit of honor, and Christians, who should be guided by humility. This is why in the City of God he talks about the soldier or the magistrate who takes life, recognizing the tragedy of what they are responsible for. Robert Dodaro has a good discussion of the role of humility and honor for those who have the responsibilities of governing, including taking life, in his book Christ and the Just Society in the Thought of Augustine.

Thank you Matthew for making this point. I had assumed that Elshtain was correct on this particular issue of attribution. There is, after all, a massive scaffolding of “just war” literature that appropriates passages from Augustine’s later work, some of which you allude to here. I don’t think or write from within the confines of that context; what interests me more are outsider questions that interrogate the tradition against the ugly backdrop of actions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and here at home. If we are stuck with a vision that understands such actions as ramifying from mere “temptations of pride” and nothing more, then we are at a dead end.

""As to killing others in order to defend one's own life, I do not approve of this, unless one happen to be a soldier or public functionary..."

Thank you, Matthew S. for the information.  

Hmm. It seems to me that Elshtain overstates her point.  I note that Augustine says nothing here about defending oneself when it is not a question of life or death.  I wonder if violent crime in his city was uncommon.  Looks to me like he didn't give the subject very much thought.

""As to killing others in order to defend one's own life, I do not approve of this, unless one happen to be a soldier or public functionary..."

Thank you, Matthew S. for the information.  

Hmm. It seems to me that Elshtain overstates her point.  I note that Augustine says nothing here about defending oneself when it is not a question of life or death.  I wonder if violent crime in his city was uncommon.  Looks to me like he didn't give the subject very much thought.