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Love and Violence in Augustine and Arendt

How can community be grounded, if neither in force nor in love? To find out, we must reckon with Arendt’s reading of Augustine, for whom love and force were intimately intertwined.

In 1970, Hannah Arendt released On Violence, a response to the violent rhetoric in political statements made by student movements in Paris, New York, and Chicago. Her blunt remarks should strike many as unsettling in 2018. “Serious violence entered the scene,” she says, “only with the appearance of the Black Power movement on the campuses” (18). “Negro students, the majority of them admitted without academic qualifications,” she continued, “regarded and organized themselves as an interest group, the representatives of the black community. Their interest was to lower academic standards” (18). Her racist tone is hard to ignore. Arendt even criticizes the “academic establishment” for its “curious tendency” to heed the concerns of students of colour, which to her are “silly and outrageous,” unlike the “highly moral claims” of their white counterparts (19). It is difficult to square these comments with Arendt’s reputation as an ally of the “civil rights movement,” as Martha Stortz put it in her Dialog article “Geographies of Friendship” (229). 

How then are we to explain Arendt’s remarks without explaining them away? If we want to historicize her, we could say Arendt’s experiences in totalitarian Europe led her to take a radical stance against political violence even in this quite different context. Yet that would hardly do justice to the substance of her thought, which aims to safeguard a space for freedom without force. On some accounts, she means to accomplish this by means of a political ‘love.’ As Eric Gregory has pointed out in his piece “Augustine and Arendt on Love,” however, Arendt often grounds her case for political freedom in a critique of love, which, in its rapaciousness, turns out to be too closely allied with force (161). Yet how can community be grounded, if neither in force nor in love? To find out, we must reckon with Arendt’s reading of Augustine, for whom love and force were intimately intertwined.

In 1929, Arendt completed a dissertation called Love and Saint Augustine. Why would a young philosopher, trained by Heidegger and Jaspers, begin her career by interrogating caritas in the writings of an ancient African bishop? The short answer is: Arendt saw in Augustine a heightening of the tension between love of God and love of neighbor. On the surface, these two Christian commands go together, but Arendt holds that the Augustinian injunction to love the neighbour ‘in’ God ultimately undermines any chance of regarding others in their particularity. Christian caritas swallows up the very individuals whose individuality we should be preserving (107-108). This is a totalizing love that collapses humankind into a collective mass—Augustine would call it a massa damnata—rather than a liberal love that reveres the freedom of every person to act within the world of politics.

Some might see in both Augustine and Arendt a tragic sensibility, wherein humankind can only struggle imperfectly against its flawed condition. This is plausible. Less likely are attempts to correlate Arendt’s polis, the messy space of freedom, with the Augustinian civitas, a community constituted by grace, not autonomy. There is an epidemic of taking Augustine’s ‘two cities’ in political terms: the earthly city is secular society, the heavenly city its eschatological replacement. Augustine, however, usually presents the heavenly city as the body of the elect, who receive the grace to believe in God; the earthly city consists of everyone else. Confusingly, we will not know who is a citizen of which city until the eschaton, when citizenship finally gets sorted out (City of God, 1.35). Far from a polis of autonomous agents, Augustine frames our historical saeculum as a space of heteronomous recipients. It is less about who acts wisely and more about who receives the gift of acting gracefully.

Arendt frames her own views on such issues most explicitly in Part III (“Social Life”) of her work on Augustine. Referring imprecisely to the two-cities distinction, she writes:

The sinful past has established the earthly city and made the world the home of human interdependence. To be at home in the world is a matter of course. Being a stranger in the world, for the Christian, is only a possibility, for the matter of course is to be at home in the world (105).

Augustine does write about everyday social interdependence, in other words, but this is not the same as ‘love of neighbour.’ True caritas requires alienation from obvious interdependence; it forces us to love others as creatures of God. On this view, our goal is not to overcome social alienation, but rather to achieve it in the first place, so that we can overcome it anew via an otherworldly love. Much is therefore riding on the human response to the divine initiative. “Salvation itself,” says Arendt, “is made to depend on the conduct of the world” (107). And again: “the new life can only be won in fighting the old” (107). Note here that her description of Augustine emphasizes human initiative rather than receptivity. We hear much about conduct, action, and winning, but little of the gift.

Only transformative caritas, raised above the level of merely societal interdependence, can fulfill the Christian command to love one’s neighbours. Again, Arendt expresses this in terms of the two cities: “Love extends to all people in the ciuitas Dei, just as interdependence extended equally to all in the ciuitas terrena” (110-111). But this would only make sense if the earthly city were the sphere of politics and the heavenly city were some readily identifiable body of ‘lovable’ neighbours. Neither is the case. As a result, Augustinian love is due not just to citizens of one city or another, but to all, since we cannot at this stage determine who is in which camp. Christian charity includes the injunction to love one’s enemy precisely because we cannot tell friend from enemy in the first place.

Arendt is right, however, to find in Augustine the language of force and the risk of an all-encompassing caritas. Divine love, for Augustine, can melt us down in its heat, as if subjecting our souls to a forge. Preserving haecceity is not Augustine’s priority. It is this threat of a totalizing love that worries Arendt, who, in The Human Condition, wrote:

Love, for reasons of its passion, destroys the in-between which relates us to and separates us from others. […] Love by its very nature is unworldly, and it is for this reason rather than its rarity that it is not only apolitical but antipolitical, perhaps the most powerful of all antipolitical forces (242).

This is what makes Arendt a critic of caritas. Her position contrasts with Augustine’s militant love, manifesting itself as political force. Contextual pressures—namely, the violence that erupted between rival Christian sects in ancient Africa—consolidated the subtlety of divine love into the materiality of real charity. With his ‘catholics’ and the puritan Donatists locked in a tension that turned into outright strife, Augustine’s Letter 93 mobilized love in the service of force. This alliance between love and violence would, for Arendt, foreclose the possibility of carving out a space for political freedom. Yet if love is not the antidote to force, what is? According to Eric Gregory (162), it might be a kind of Kantian respect. We must never do violence to our neighbour, not because we love them—indeed, love instigates violence—but because we respect them as free agents, ends in themselves, and worthy entrants into the sphere of public debate.

What Arendt offers us is a high-level defense of liberal respectability politics, forged in conversation with Being and Time rather than the New York Times. Nevertheless, her critique of both violence and love is motivated by a sense that politics is what happens when free citizens gather together in the public square to respect each other’s rights. But what happens when such respect is not justly distributed? What happens when the masses take to the square? In that case, Augustine’s totalizing or totalitarian love takes over. When the goal is to prolong the dream of individual autonomy, all-encompassing caritas is intimidating. If the goal is to harness the power of love for the sake of emancipation, however, the allure of Augustinian love returns. To the guardians of respectability, that might sound “silly,” “ridiculous,” or even dangerous. Yet to those in need of emancipation, love’s unsettling force remains compelling.

This becomes clearest in view of the structural violence that continues to militate against emancipation while avoiding the condemnation some would reserve for students of colour. “Direct and unconcealed brute force and violence,” wrote Huey P. Newton in a dissertation that met the academic standards of the University of California in 1980, “are today less acceptable to an increasingly sophisticated public.” He continued:

This is not a statement, however, that there is such increased civility that Americans can no longer tolerate social control of the country’s underclasses by force of violence; rather, it is an observation that Americans today appear to be more inclined to issue endorsement to agents and agencies of control which carry out the task, while permitting the benefactors of such control to retain a semi-dignified, clean-hands image of themselves.

Respectable critiques of direct action could, in other words, obscure the hidden violence that makes the liberal space of respectability possible. Transformative love refuses this double standard by any means necessary, even if that leads to accusations of compulsion and coercion. But that, for Augustine, is what caritas looks like.

Love and Politics

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Love and Violence in Augustine and Arendt

How can community be grounded, if neither in force nor in love? To find out, we must reckon with Arendt’s reading of Augustine, for whom love and force were intimately intertwined.

America’s Love Problem: How Oprah’s Call to Friendship Feeds Bannon’s Call to Racism (or: On Three Strains of Liberal Lovesickness)

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