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Piracy, Politics, and Proximate Justice

In likening kingdoms lacking justice to criminal syndicates, Augustine invokes the story of a confrontation between Alexander the Great and a pirate. Indeed, Augustine judges “that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, ‘What thou meanest by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, whilst thou who dost it with a great fleet art styled emperor’” (De civ. Dei 4.4.1).

In likening kingdoms lacking justice to criminal syndicates, Augustine invokes the story of a confrontation between Alexander the Great and a pirate. Indeed, Augustine judges “that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, ‘What thou meanest by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, whilst thou who dost it with a great fleet art styled emperor’” (De civ. Dei 4.4.1).

Brian Harding, in his article “The Use of Alexander the Great in Augustine’s City of God,” observes that Augustine’s likely source for the anecdotal encounter was Cicero’s De re publica, which in fact includes a very similar tale arising from the lips of Philus, one of the dialogue’s interlocutors. Augustine uses the story to underscore his conclusion that, in fact, the existence of justice is the only qualitative difference between legitimate and illegitimate coercive power: “Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies?”

In this application of the anecdote, Augustine is following Cicero closely. In fact, after relating the encounter between the emperor and the pirate Philus goes on to claim that “this pirate was, forsooth, something of a philosopher in his way, for worldly wisdom and prudence instructs by all means to increase our power, riches, and estates.” In Augustinian parlance, the pirate was simply pursuing the same goal that animates everyone in the earthly city, the inordinate pursuit of one’s own self-interest. Cicero recognizes, however, the problematic that celebration of the libido dominandi creates for human civilization. For in the very next section Philus explores the antinomy between justice, which “commands us to have mercy upon all” and “to exercise universal philanthropy,” and on the other hand “worldly wisdom and policy, which teach us how to gain wealth, power, riches, honours, provinces, and kingdoms from all classes, peoples, and nations” (De re pub. 3). Cicero thus puts his finger precisely on the moral calculus of justice: how much are we to value our own interests relative to that of others? The two basic answers to this question are what define, for Augustine, the two cities.


In Redeeming Economics, John Mueller argues for, among other things, the reintegration of the category of “crime” into economic analysis. A “crime” is defined as an act “depriving some person of a good that belongs to him or her—giving that person a negative significance in the distribution of goods” (pp. 109-110). By “negative significance,” Mueller means to describe the attitude of a hateful person: “A person who hates others gives himself a positive and others a negative significance, and keeps all scarce resources to him- or herself” (p. 181).

Mueller introduces the categories of “gift” (a display of a positive significance) and “crime” (an act of negative signification) at the level of personal economy, taking his cue from Augustine. “Love of neighbor, love of self, and hate all involve a weighing of oneself vs. other persons,” writes Mueller, “Such a weighing of persons is the essence of all moral decisions. The three behaviors differ, however, in the importance given to the self relative to others” (p. 181).

Indeed, Augustine would elsewhere provide his answer for how best to reconcile the universal demands of love and justice with the concrete obligations of personal relationship: “all men are to be loved equally. But since you cannot do good to all, you are to pay special regard to those who, by the accidents of time, or place, or circumstance, are brought into closer connection with you” (De doct. Christ., 1.28.29). There is a universal aspect to the moral obligations of love and justice, but a practical limit on what can be achieved at the level of individual: “since you cannot consult for the good of them all, you must take the matter as decided for you by a sort of lot, according as each man happens for the time being to be more closely connected with you” (De doct. Christ., 1.28.29). Thus there is a kind of preference for the proximate in dispensing with moral obligations, and at the level of individual ethics, justice must begin, at least, with the determination not to take from others what belongs to them.  But this stricture proves rather more difficult to apply at the level of political institutions, which can easily mask naked plunder under the pretense of the public good.  So we see in Augustine’s and Cicero’s reflections on Alexander and the pirate: because the pirate did not have the grandiose pretensions of “a great fleet” he could not justify his actions by appeal to the privilege accorded to states.

Augustine’s answer, expressing a preference for the proximate, amounts to a seminal expression of what would later be developed and applied more rigorously and systematically at the institutional level in the doctrine of subsidiarity. When moving from the realm of individual conduct to the level of institutional ethics, we move from considerations of commutative to distributive justice. Mueller makes the point, however, that distributive justice as such is not the norm for political economy alone, but applies to the distribution of goods within all kinds of communities. Thus we can speak of a domestic economy, referring to the household unit. We might also speak of a kind of piratical economy, as explored, for instance, in Peter Leeson’s The Invisible Hook. As Leeson notes, despite the illegal and immoral status of pirate enterprises, there are significant and complex issues of distributive justice within communities of pirates. And while there were land-based communities of pirates, “the most important unit of pirate society, and the strongest sense in which this society existed, was the polity aboard the pirate ship” (p. 9).

Is it merely scale, however, that distinguishes the activities of the pirate captain from that of a “self-styled” emperor like Alexander? It was not common, but Leeson does note instances where “some pirate crews were too large to fit in one ship” (p. 10). At least one significant difference might be that governments are explicitly oriented by the norm of justice, while criminal syndicates are not. As Leeson describes the difference between the “invisible hand” and the “invisible hook,” the latter “considers criminal self-interest’s effect on cooperation in a pirate society. It’s concerned with how criminal social groups work. The invisible hand, in contrast, considers traditional consumer and producer self-interests’ effects on cooperation in the marketplace. It’s concerned with how legitimate markets work” (p. 4).

Likewise, the key question raised by Cicero and Augustine is how to distinguish legitimate governments from illegitimate, justice from tyranny. As we have noted, the norm for governmental legitimacy must be justice, specifically distributive justice at the level of political economy. On Cicero’s account, Philus goes on to examine whether justice or “policy” have been the guiding principles of government action. Philus finds government injustice to be so general a practice that he concludes, “If we were to examine the conduct of states by the test of justice, as you propose, we should probably make this astounding discovery, that very few nations, if they restored what they have usurped, would possess any country at all” (De re pub. 3).


Augustine finds that, indeed, on Cicero’s account of justice, “there never was a Roman republic; for he briefly defines a republic as the weal of the people. And if this definition be true, there never was a Roman republic, for the people’s weal was never attained among the Romans” (De civ. Dei 4.19.21). Augustine brings this line of reasoning to its conclusion:

“where there is not true justice there can be no assemblage of men associated by a common acknowledgment of right, and therefore there can be no people, as defined by Scipio or Cicero; and if no people, then no weal of the people, but only of some promiscuous multitude unworthy of the name of people.  Consequently, if the republic is the weal of the people, and there is no people if it be not associated by a common acknowledgment of right, and if there is no right where there is no justice, then most certainly it follows that there is no republic where there is no justice.”

Augustine finds the logic of this analysis compelling, and so to continue to speak meaningfully of a Roman people, republic, or justice, he has to modify, or rather temper, Cicero’s definition. A true justice would give everyone their due, including God. “When a man does not serve God,” wonders Augustine, “what justice can we ascribe to him, since in this case his soul cannot exercise a just control over the body, nor his reason over his vices?  And if there is no justice in such an individual, certainly there can be none in a community composed of such persons” (De civ. Dei 4.19.21). So this ideal of justice, rendering to all their due, is never achieved by an actual concrete historical entity. Even in the church it is only more or less approximated. The Ciceronian view of justice, then, is aspirational rather than achievable. For Augustine it is a picture of the justice characteristic of the eschaton, when God will be all in all (1 Cor. 15:28), and “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev. 21:4).

To continue his analysis, Augustine has to take up a different definition of a people, and thereby a different definition of republic, right, and justice. Thus, says Augustine, if we “discard” the Ciceronian definitions and assume others, particularly “that a people is an assemblage of reasonable beings bound together by a common agreement as to the objects of their love, then, in order to discover the character of any people, we have only to observe what they love” (De civ. Dei 4.19.24). This, then, becomes Augustine’s working definition of justice, since a comparison of the different loves that animate different peoples is achievable. As Leeson writes in the case of pirates, for instance, “piratical self-interest seeking didn’t benefit wider society.” Their self-love resulted in a group that “thrived parasitically off others’ production. Thus pirates didn’t benefit society by creating wealth; they harmed society by siphoning existing wealth off for themselves” (p. 4).

There are better and worse things to love, and it is this relative scale of loves on the ordo amoris that drives Augustine’s ongoing comparison of the city of God, animated by the love of God, and the city of Man, animated by the love of self. And so even if no human community ever manifests the fullness of Cicero’s understanding of justice, we can still make relative judgments about human communities and their orientation toward various loves. On the Augustinian account, then, we are left with what might be called “proximate justice” as opposed to “eschatological justice.” We must live in the midst of the former in this age even while we strive towards the latter in the age to come.

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