My first instinct was to not watch the inauguration. Make no mistake, I was relieved at Trump’s departure. But I was concerned that the locked-down, buttoned-up Capitol, still bearing the scars of the insurrection just two weeks before, was a sign of a still-brimming crisis. Would there be a disruption? An attack? It seemed unthinkable, but then again, an insurrection had seemed unthinkable before January 6. I was afraid to tune in, but my wife wanted to watch, so I relented. To my astonishment and relief, I found myself in tears several times, not at any particular moment or gesture or speaker. It was rather the broader sense that some danger had passed, that some civility had returned. I exhaled in a way I hadn’t since 2016.
Biden’s speech was good, but not great. The new president is not a great orator, especially when he’s working from a teleprompter. But it was good. It had the hallmarks of the message that Biden rode to electoral victory: calls to honesty, truth, and unity against “anger, resentment, hatred, extremism, lawlessness, violence, disease, joblessness, hopelessness.” It also shared a grace note that we’ve seen in several of Biden’s later speeches—an invocation of Biden’s own Catholic faith. In his first speech after the election in November, Biden quoted the late-twentieth-century Catholic liturgical staple “On Eagle’s Wings” by Michael Joncas. While it’s a song that liturgical aesthetes love to hate, it has an undeniable power in the U.S. Catholic Church. I learned afterward that it’s personally important to Biden because it was played at his son Beau’s funeral. I can’t hear it anymore without remembering my father’s funeral nearly a dozen years ago.
In his inauguration speech, Biden dove deeper into the Catholic intellectual tradition, quoting St. Augustine of Hippo’s City of God: “Saint Augustine, a saint of my Church, wrote that a people was a multitude defined by the common objects of their love. What are the common objects we love that define us as Americans?”
It’s exactly the right question. In the sprawling twenty-two books of City of God, Augustine offers a profound reflection on the successes and failures of the Roman Empire in which Augustine was raised and in which he flourished. For many readers, it seems like Augustine’s intent is polemical, exposing the failures of a pagan Roman empire. In some ways, that’s fair. But such a reading can obscure the fact that Augustine is truly impressed with the virtue and strength of character of the Roman heroes he discusses. The tragedy of Rome is that such virtue and strength was devoted to something less than the fullness of life God offers us. This, says Augustine, is why the great Roman regime began to crumble:
They took no account of their own material interests compared with the common good...they resisted the temptations of avarice; they acted for their country’s well-being with disinterested concern.... By such immaculate conduct they labored towards honors, power and glory, by what they took to be the true way. And they were honored in almost all nations...and today they enjoy renown in the history and literature of nearly all races. They have no reason to complain of the justice of God, the supreme and true. “They have received their reward in full.” (City of God V.15)
Because Rome was devoted to its own glory, says Augustine, its justice and virtue would always be slightly distorted, always falling short of the fullness of justice. Rome sought glory in this mortal world and received a mortal glory that would shine, but fade. The sack of Rome in 410 CE, for Augustine, may have been a sign that Rome’s era of earthly glory was passing. But “they have received their reward in full.” On this basis, Augustine decides that Cicero’s classic definition of a commonwealth, “a multitude united by a common sense of right,” doesn’t really work. Rome was not, ultimately, just, because any city devoted to anything less than the immortal glory of God will fall short of true justice. But Augustine knew that it would be silly to say that there was no such thing as a Roman commonwealth. His alternative definition, the one Biden quotes, is that a commonwealth is “a multitude united by a common object of their love.” The whole point of this definition is to widen it, to allow all sorts of regimes to be assessed as commonwealths, as political communities, whether or not they were rightly ordered to God. Even a community of thieves might be understood as a “commonwealth,” in the sense that they do, in fact, share a common object of love: their own profit. The definition, then, is neutral and diagnostic. And, if we ask it honestly and with integrity, it’s very illuminating.