President Joe Biden, St. Augustine, and the ‘City of Man’
Biden’s inaugural address employed St. Augustine to suggest Americans’ “common objects of love” include “opportunity, security, liberty, dignity, respect, honor, truth.” Missing from that list is “country.” What does it mean that Americans’ common love for their country is no longer obvious?
St. Augustine’s appearance in the inaugural address of President Joe Biden introduced an element of Catholic social teaching to the ceremony.
“Many centuries ago, Saint Augustine, a saint of my church, wrote that a people was a multitude defined by the common objects of their love,” Biden said. “What are the common objects we love that define us as Americans? I think I know. Opportunity. Security. Liberty. Dignity. Respect. Honor. And, yes, the truth.”
Biden raised a key question for “social teaching.” Who belongs to the “social,” namely the “society”?
Pope Leo XIII, father of modern Catholic social teaching, thought of societies as being groups that were united by a common mission, sharing a common good and working toward common ends. The first such society would be the family. So, too, is the Church. And there are countless other societies — schools, businesses, teams, charities — which act in their own right, subjects of their own action. Pope St. John Paul II would call this the “subjectivity of society,” namely that society as whole is made up of many societies which are acting subjects in their own right.
Pope Leo generally followed St. Thomas Aquinas. St. Augustine, writing much earlier, proposed that what organizes a society is sharing what is loved. Those “common objects of love” give rise to a common mission, and therefore a “society” as Pope Leo would express it, reading Augustine through Thomas.
The Augustine quotation employed by Biden is from The City of God:
If one should say, ‘a people is the association of a multitude of rational beings united by a common agreement on the objects of their love,’ then it follows that to observe the character of a people we must examine the objects of its love.
So what do Americans love? Is that love sufficient for a common, unifying mission?
Biden suggested that “common objects of love” include “opportunity, security, liberty, dignity, respect, honor, truth.”
That’s a perfectly respectable word salad for the fleeting rhetoric of a political speech, but a love of “opportunity” or “respect” is not really what Augustine would understand as a “common object.”
The most obvious thing missing from Biden’s list is “country.” Would not love of the United States of America be the common object that unites Americans, just as loving the family itself is the love that unites the family?
But whether Americans love the U.S., or at least share a common love for their country, is not obvious. The past year has not been short of voices — in the streets and in the offices of elite opinion leaders — that suggest that the U.S. is not really that lovable. That it is a corrupt and corrupting enterprise, not worthy of love. Certainly, there does not seem to be a unifying love for U.S. history.
The immediate backdrop to the inauguration, the assault on the Capitol, is hard to square with a shared love of country. Many of the rioters called themselves “patriots,” but beating a police officer with a stick attached to the American flag is not a patriotic act. At the very least, those who stormed the Capitol did not love some U.S. institutions.
The problem with Biden’s list of “common objects” of love is that they remain abstract. Love is concrete, or least the love that forms concrete societies has to be concrete. For example, Biden could have added to his list “public service,” but is there a uniting love for public servants, or even public offices? Do Americans love the presidency or merely the president? And if they hate the president, as many did with President Donald Trump, does the presidency — or public representatives more generally — cease to unite?
Do Americans love, or even have good will, for other U.S. citizens? A common theme of all inaugurations is that opponents are not enemies, that political rivals share the common bond of citizenship. But there are some, and not only a rare few, who do regard their rivals as enemies. To which the gospel response is that Christians are to love their enemies, too, but as a political matter, unity cannot be achieved if the other is regarded as an enemy in the first place.
Theologian Chad Pecknold, a professor at The Catholic University of America, notedthat Biden — who, after all, was not giving a theology lecture — “failed to identify the only common object of love that Augustine thought mattered for a true commonwealth: God.”
Augustine’s City of Godproposes that there are two competing projects, what he called the “City of God” and the “City of Man.” Who belongs to which city is determined by our loves. The City of God is a society united by the bond of common love of God. The City of Man is a society united by the bond of a common love of self. The City of God is never fully realized in this world, being built anew and in part in every generation. And the City of Man is constantly falling into decline and disarray as love of self cannot sustain a common mission, a society.
That might be the greatest challenge Augustine gives to contemporary America. Love of self is a powerful force in a culture that exalts autonomy, independence, consumer excess, hedonism, self-esteem and self-affirmation. A culture whose primary digital recreation is pornography gives new meaning to the ancient category of self-love.
One of the more striking comments on the inaugural ceremonies was that Biden was able to attract more high-wattage celebrities than Trump, despite the latter being a high-wattage celebrity himself for four decades. What is a celebrity culture but one that exalts love of self, and the various selves held up for common admiration?
In the months ahead, the question of common objects of love, raised but not adequately answered in the inaugural address, will be taken up in Catholic media, institutes and universities. Most inaugural addresses do not have that effect.
But then most such addresses do not include St. Augustine. It was good that the president included him.
- President Joe Biden