Aristotle and Augustine


Christianity and Politics (3)

Aristotle rediscovered
Augustine’s "City of God" left the Latin speaking world with a view of government that was at best ambivalent: it was ordained by God and thus potentially good, but given the reality and pervasiveness of sin, it was inevitably corrupt and part of the City of Man, a world ruled by selfishness and self-seeking pride, even when led by a Christian Emperor.

A more positive vision of government came to the medieval Church through the recovery of writings on politics by the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle starting in the twelfth century. Latin Christian scholars came into contact with previously unknown texts by Aristotle in Muslim Spain, and they began to translate them into Latin. These texts revolutionized intellectual life in medieval Europe. They provided a complete and coherent worldview that addressed many of the critical issues medieval scholars had been studying. Aristotle’s writings were so wide-ranging and so well thought out that he became known as “the master [i.e. teacher] of those who know.”

Aristotle’s "Politics" is not well known among the general public today, but it was critically important to the American Founders, helping to shape both what they believed about the role of government, and how they designed the U.S. Constitution.

Political theory
Aristotle’s political theory is based on natural law. He argued that the nature of anything is determined by its purpose, or as he put it, its final cause. For humanity, our end is happiness (eudaimonia), which he understood to be the full development of all our natural abilities, pursued through reason. This leads to a life of virtue and excellence.

In the Declaration of Independence, when Jefferson wrote of the inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness, this is what he had in mind: since eudaimonia, a life of virtue and excellence, is the fundamental purpose of human life, no government can take away our right to pursue it.

Since humanity was created for eudaimonia, it follows that human communities are established to help in the pursuit of that purpose. Aristotle saw the state as a largely self-sufficient, self-contained, and therefore complete community. It therefore had as its purpose the promotion of the good in society, which means encouraging its citizens toward a life of virtue. Aristotle’s focus is thus on the positive contribution that government can make rather than on the negative effects of sin that Augustine emphasizes.

Of course, Aristotle was no fool. He realized that governments do not always tend toward the good, and that they can and do become corrupt. One of his main topics in the "Politics" was how to best structure for the state to promote its proper end.

Aristotle argued that there were three basic forms of government, each of which existed in both proper and deviant forms:

  1. Rule by a single individual is a monarchy in its proper form, but when the monarch rules for self-interest rather than for the common good, it degenerates into a tyranny.

  1. Rule by a few is an aristocracy in its proper form, but it degenerates into an oligarchy when the few rule out of self-interest rather than the common good.

  1. Rule by many is a republic (i.e. rule by representation) in its proper form, and its degenerate form is a democracy (literally “mob rule,” where the citizens make all decisions directly), since demagogues (“mob leaders”) can sway the emotions of the people and lead them to make decisions based on passion rather than reason, which is essential for eudaimonia.


Each positive form of government had its strengths and weaknesses. Monarchs can act quickly in a crisis, but if they make a mistake, it can be disastrous. Aristocracies have the ability to deliberate and are less likely to make mistakes, but they are slow to respond in crises. Republics have a great deal of buy-in from the people, but are if anything even worse in the face of crises.

For Aristotle, the ideal state is one in which all the citizens are virtuous and thus able to participate appropriately in the government. Since most states fall short of this ideal, the next best is a mixed state, where elements of each of the three positive types of government are found and where the balance of power favors neither the rich (which would tend toward oligarchy) nor the poor (which would tend toward democracy), but the people in the middle who he believed were more likely to follow the dictates of reason.

Adapting Aristotle
Although medieval political thought tended to be colored by Augustinian pessimism, Aristotle’s positive vision of government had an enormous impact on medieval political thought. It found expression in the various attempts to create mixed states across Europe.

  • Medieval cities were ruled by a set of representative councils (republic), with a greater concentration of power in smaller councils made up of members of the nobility and wealthy commoners (aristocracy), and sometimes with a prince overseeing the whole lot (monarchy).
  • Kings (monarchy) ruled with their council (aristocracy), but increasingly had representative parties such as the English Parliament or the Holy Roman Empire’s Diet that included representation from both the nobility and the commoners (aristocracy and republic).
  • Nobles (monarchy) always ruled with the counsel of their subordinates (aristocracy), who had the right and obligation to advise in matters which affected them.

The Aristotelian view of government was particularly attractive to secular rulers (and the Nominalist theologians who supported them) who were trying to assert their own authority over and against the claims of the Catholic Church, which saw itself as the embodiment of the City of God. Aristotle’s "Politics" thus contributed to the tug-of-war between Church and state during the middle ages and into the early modern period by softening Augustinian pessimism about the state’s potential for good.

Distrust of government
In the wake of the Protestant Reformation and the Wars of Religion, questions of how to deal with governments that turned tyrannical and attacked their own citizens inevitably came up. Perhaps for this reason, the balance between Augustine and Aristotle began to tilt more toward the Augustinian side, particularly among Calvinists involved in struggles with monarchies over religious belief and practice.

This tilt toward distrust of government was particularly important for American politics in the colonial period and early republic, particularly among the English Calvinists (i.e. the Puritans) who moved here. For example, public schools were established in the New England colonies specifically so people would know the Bible so they could hold their legislators accountable for their laws.

Distrust of government was also a critical feature of the U.S. Constitution. The idea of checks and balances comes from the Augustinian idea that no one can be trusted with unrestricted power. The system is almost designed to guarantee gridlock, particularly in the event someone wants to push sweeping changes to the law. The government is set up to prevent this without widespread consensus among groups with different interests.

Distrust of government also explains why the Constitution explicitly states that the Federal government has only a small number of specifically enumerated powers, with the rest reserved to the states—the constitutional clause most completely ignored in modern America.

Augustinianism is also at the foundation of the Bill of Rights, which was intended to protect people from the government. The first amendment in particular was put in place in part to ensure that the government would not interfere with the people’s right to criticize it, and the second amendment to allow the people to protect themselves from the government, which would otherwise have a monopoly on the use of force.

A blended tradition
At the same time, the Founders recognized that the government they designed could become corrupt. They argued that the only bulwark against tyranny was the election of men of virtue to government. (And no, they did not anticipate women would run for office, or that would have been “persons of virtue.”)

This emphasis on the importance of virtue brings us back to the Aristotelian notion of the ends for which humans and government were made. Aristotelianism also had a direct impact on the design of the federal government, which was intentionally set up as an Aristotelian mixed state: the President embodies the monarchial principle, the Senate the aristocratic principle, and the House of Representatives the republican principle.

What all this means is that the Augustinian tradition and the Aristotelian tradition were blended together to create the U.S. Constitution as the culmination of over 500 years of political theorizing and experimentation. It was an impressive feat: the European intellectuals of the Enlightenment considered the Constitution a marvel to be emulated, an ideal Aristotelian mixed state that preserved the liberties of the people.

Even those who wrote the Constitution had doubts about whether it could last, however. Jefferson famously said that the Tree of Liberty had to be refreshed with the blood of tyrants every few generations, because he believed government inevitably tended toward tyranny. And when asked by a woman what they had given the people, Benjamin Franklin replied, “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.”

If we can keep it. The increasingly urgent question we need to ask today is, Can we?

Next steps

How do your Christian friends make political choices? What criteria factor into their thinking about how they should vote? Share this article with a few Christian friends, then meet to discuss these and other questions related to our current political situation.


For a better understanding of worldviews and how they affect our thinking, order the series, Worldview and Why It Matters, featuring Glenn Sunshine and Chuck Colson, from our online store. To learn more about the classic Christian virtues, order the flash-drive study series, Renewing Virtue. It comes with eight brief videos and free study materials you can print or copy for others.



1 Comment

  1. One mustn't forget that a lot of this was reaction to a given situation rather then a conscious following of theory. A large part of the reason for feudalism was that rulers needed to pay their followers without the risk of constant raiding as a source of plunder. With a shortage of cash, land was the easiest method.
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