At the end of his weekly PBS News Hour analysis, David Brooks quoted St. Augustine’s views about the order of love (ordo amoris) to criticize the president’s muted response toward the Saudis for the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. When asked about the administration’s response, Brooks responded:
I mean, usually, when you sell your soul for money, you try to hide the fact. But it’s our official policy now that, if you’re rich and you buy a lot of stuff from us, then you can do all sorts of monstrous things.
And it is a commercial mentality that is not what we have stood for all our lives, or not what we would expect in any human being. Saint Augustine said we have different loves, and some are higher than others, and our love for basic decency should be higher than our love for money.
Brooks’ comment jumped out at me for the sheer awkwardness of a New York Times columnist quoting a Christian theologian on the question of American foreign policy. I don’t have any objections; in fact, I was quite happy to see Augustine being paraphrased on the News Hour.
To many who study St. Augustine’s work for a living, this latest pronouncement by a well-respected columnist has only served to drive home the renaissance of interest in the work of this very old Catholic bishop from late antiquity. Augustine is having a moment, but he’s been having a moment for many centuries. The primary non-biblical authority for Thomas Aquinas—the “angelic doctor” of the Catholic Church—is also the steel in the spine of Luther and the other Protestant Reformers’ doctrine of salvation by grace alone through faith. Augustine’s influence seems to always return in one way or another. In the twentieth century it was Reinhold Niebuhr who claimed Augustine as the spirit behind his own Christian realism.
But the question we must always ask is whether Augustine has been truly understood and applied in a way that does justice to his work. I’m all for letting a thousand Augustinian flowers bloom, but if we are going to have integrity with this towering giant, we need to hold ourselves accountable. That is, if we claim to have understood his deepest insights, then we should be willing to test them.
Take Brooks’ latest invocation of Augustine’s order of loves. It is true that we ought to love basic decency more than money, but this seems to be an overly moralistic gloss on a very complex situation. The overly moralistic Augustine has been on the ascendancy as of late. Brooks in his book The Road to Character paints this picture of Augustine. Many other contemporary Augustine scholars also paint Augustine in softer and gentler hues. And there is plenty of material to draw upon in Augustine’s work to show this depth of heart and sensitivity. But this Augustine seems to be too much a reflection of our own tastes and sensibilities. It is Augustine in our own therapeutic Western image.
There is another Augustine made popular by Reinhold Niebuhr in the twentieth century that was primarily known in political circles as a hard-nosed realist. And there is plentiful material for this Augustine as well. In one of the most famous (or infamous, depending on your take) passages in City of God, Augustine displays the “darkness” that “social life” is surrounded in on account of our ignorance. He paints the picture of a judge faced with an accused criminal. How does the judge make the right decision? In Augustine’s estimation, it is impossible to get at the truth. And so the judge is forced to make a decision knowing he could very well be wrong, thereby committing injustice in order that justice might be done. He laments:
If it is through unavoidable ignorance and the unavoidable duty of judging that he tortures the innocent, then he himself is certainly not guilty. But is he also happy? Surely, it would be more compassionate, and more worthy of dignity of man, if he were to acknowledge that the necessity of acting in this way is a miserable one: if he hated his own part in it, and if, with the knowledge of godliness, he cried out to God, “From my necessities deliver Thou me.”
Social life is thus shrouded with darkness, but we cannot flee this situation “for the claims of human society, which he thinks it wicked to abandon, constrain him and draw him to his duty.” That is, though we are faced with choices where we know that we must choose between two bad options, running away is not a morally praiseworthy third option. No, we must face the cold brute reality of the ignorance and darkness that shrouds political and social life in order to uphold the order and justice necessary for a well-functioning society, even though we shall error greatly at times. It is tragic but we know that the good that politics serves requires it.
When it comes to the Khashoggi , I think it is important to take Augustine’s realistic appraisal to heart. The evidence seems to support that the Saudis did this intentionally. But the choice here is not between human decency, as Brooks would have it, and love of money or our material well-being. Walter Russell Mead, though not quoting Augustine, channels Augustine’s sensibilities better than does Brooks.
The Killing of Khashoggi
The murder of Khashoggi deserves our condemnation. However, the righteous fury against the Saudis would be misplaced, as Mead cautions, “to do what the Iran-deal chorus and the Erdogan and Muslim Brotherhood apologists want—to dissolve the U.S.-Saudi alliance in a frenzy of righteousness—would be an absurd overreaction that plays into the hands of America’s enemies.” In our outrage over injustice, we are in danger of causing greater harm to ourselves and the region if we are unmeasured in our response.
The Saudis have been a ruthless and rather flatfooted actor in the region for some time. The Khashoggi bungle is just another in a series of bungles by a kingdom that is reacting to events. The Saudis are autocrats, not democrats. They face pressure on many fronts, including an aggressive and violent Iran, a competitive Turkey, the Yemen war, Russian interests in Syria, and internal political demands to name a few. If proven true, the death Khashoggi is horrific, but the horrors facing the Middle East without a stable Saudi Arabia are far worse.
Saudi Arabia is struggling on many fronts, and the Khashoggi affair is more evidence of the same. The real issue is not the brutal murder of this dissident journalist. It is the behavior of a country that feels deeply insecure and is over asserting itself in ways that are destructive. What an Augustinian realism would counsel is not to overreact in ways that would unduly punish the Saudis or to play into the hands of America’s enemies who seek to create greater chaos in the region. There is a way of upholding moral standards without lapsing into destructive self-righteousness. Khashoggi is one death in a region awash in blood and violence. The Syrian conflagration barely draws a whimper from Americans, even though the body count rises daily. If we are going to send a message to the Saudis and Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman, we ought to send it in a way that will be effective and not destructive.
The reality is that the choice we are facing is between two bad ones, but one is clearly less bad. Iran is the real threat in the Middle East and as long as Saudis are willing partners in checking its ambitions and expansionist policies. We should support and help them along the path toward modernization knowing the road ahead is liable to be bumpy.