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  • Writer's pictureScott Carr, Jr.

Augustine 2020: Self-Defense and Divine Law

Updated: Sep 26, 2022

We are now turning our attention to Augustine’s thoughts on various ethical matters related to our political life together. We will begin by considering Augustine’s views on self-defense, a topic which has become particularly pertinent since it was raised in court by the killers of Ahmaud Arbery on highly questionable legal grounds and even more questionable moral grounds. It also bears on our nation’s ongoing debate over how to best uphold the Constitution’s Second Amendment “right to bear arms” while keeping citizens safe in an era of increasing mass shootings. Augustine addresses the topic in a dialogue he wrote shortly after converting to Christianity titled On Free Choice. He places an argument regarding self-defense in the mouth of his friend, Evodius. Looking at this topic will give us a window onto an argument Augustine makes about the relationship between our earthly cities’ laws and the law of the heavenly city, an argument which will be particularly forceful for centuries to come [1].

Augustine asks Evodius whether a person can kill in self-defense “without any lust being involved”. By “lust”, Augustine means “any disordered love which prefers lower or temporal goods to divine or eternal ones” [2]. Evodius argues that if an object can be lost “against their will”, it is a temporal good and can only be defended through lust. If we will lose it unless its owner violently preserves it, it is a temporary good that should not be retained. However, if one cannot lose it, it is an eternal good and does not require violence to protect it. In other words, if it is worth having, it does not need force to defend it. If it requires violence to safeguard it, it does not need to be clung to so tightly [3]. For Evodius, there is no reason for self-defense. While Augustine never challenges his argument in this work, in his later works, Augustine, while discussing the subject of war, is no longer universally opposed to violence. But we will look at those arguments next time.

However, Augustine argues that laws that permit self-defense are not unjust. When questioned by Augustine, Evodius points out that self-defense laws are in place to keep worse crimes from being committed. Self-defense is a lesser evil used to prevent a greater evil. “The death of an unjust aggressor is a lesser evil than that of a man who is only defending himself” [4]. In the same way, a soldier or agent of law enforcement might have to kill to enforce the law and protect the people from a violent enemy [5]. Individuals may kill in these scenarios to protect the greater good and not out of lust. However, Evodius argues that even if a soldier committed violence out of lust, it does not mean the law that soldier was defending was unjust. The justness of a statute is not dependent on the motivations of those who follow it.

In this argument, Augustine leaves us with a couple of pieces: there are just laws that help us in our ordered life together. In this case, there are self-defense laws that justly provide safety to our society. At the same time, that does not mean we have to use the powers those laws grant. Evodius believes that, in the eyes of God, all killing is wrong and that even though just laws give us the power to defend ourselves, killing anyone no matter the reason will be judged by God. “I fail to see how these people are blameless because the law is blameless, for the law does not oblige them to kill but only leaves it in their power to do so. Hence, they are free not to kill anyone for the sake of things that can be lost against their will and thus should not be loved” [6]. I find Augustine, or Evodius, unsatisfying in how these principles are applied here. He goes on to argue that the virtue of chastity is a virtue found in the soul. It cannot be lost and, therefore, it is wrong for a woman (or man) being raped to violently defend herself (or himself) against her (or his) attacker because, no matter what he does, he cannot take away her chastity [7]. I find this a disturbing argument. Augustine is undervaluing the importance of the human body as it was made by God, taken on by God the Son Himself in His incarnation, and that will be raised by God on the last day. The sanctity of the body is important and needs to be cherished. St. Paul talks about sins committed against the body that harm its sanctity [8]. It is true, as we have seen, that no ultimate harm can come against us as Christians because, at the last day, all sin committed against the body will be condemned and the body will be raised, perfected, and healed of all that happened to it [9]. That does not mean what happens to the body is insignificant, but quite the opposite. It matters to God so much that He takes it upon Himself to save and heal even these bodies.

So we need to reject how Augustine applies this argument here. But we also need to pay attention to the structure of his argument. Augustine reports himself as saying, “It seems to you that the law enacted for the governance of cities makes many concessions and leaves many things unpunished that are nevertheless punished by divine providence” [10]. He goes on to argue that the laws of the earthly city are helpful to human beings living this life. Augustine calls these laws “temporal” in that they provide a certain amount of justice in the present, but can be changed when situations change. The example he gives is that people should rule for the common good in a republic. However, if the people become too concerned with their private interests that they cease to enact just laws, it would be just for an individual or a person to take that power from them and reorder society for the public good [11]. I think it is safe to assume that Augustine would agree that when that individual or small group inevitably becomes invested in its own power rather than the common good, it would be just for the people to retake their power and reorder society again for the public good. In these areas, though, the justice of an individual law is determined by its ability to create justice in a specific situation.

However, there is a second law, a “supreme reason”, what he calls the “supreme good” in The City of God [12]. That law is eternal and cannot be changed under any circumstances. It is always right and just. All justice is dependent on it. “There is nothing just and lawful in that temporal law that human beings have not derived from this eternal law” [13]. Augustine has provided a complex argument that has been developed and debated in the centuries since his death. In summary, there is an eternal law that defines what is supremely good. All just laws in the earthly city must accord with this law, but these laws can change when abused. Other statutes might not orient us to the supreme good but prevent a greater evil, that safeguards us from turning towards supreme evil. When Christians are debating laws in our American context, we have a lot of questions to debate from Augustine. Is this law in accord with the supreme good? Is it in accord with supreme evil? If it is not in agreement with the ultimate good, does it prevent us from a greater evil? Does it provide safeguards to help us live in peace in the earthly city while we wait for true justice in the city of God? Does it grant freedoms that protect us now, but do I have to use that power? Should I avoid using that freedom? In using this freedom, am I clinging too tightly to my own self-interests and temporal things? In using these freedoms, can I better pursue virtue? Can our community and our society better pursue virtue together? These questions go beyond the binary choice Christians often impose on rejecting or accepting laws. They also require deep reflection and provide a more robust and nuanced way for Christians to debate the relative merits of particular policy proposals as we sojourn in the earthly city, waiting for true justice to come from the true king in the city of God.

[1] Augustine, Augustine: Political Writings, trans. Michael W. Tkacz and Douglas Kries (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994), p. 213.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid. pp. 213-214.

[4] Ibid. p. 214.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid. p. 215.

[8] 1 Corinthians 6:18.

[9] See Scott Carr, Jr. “Augustine 2020: Everlasting Life in the City of God,” October 23, 2020,

[10] Augustine, p. 215.

[11] Ibid. p. 216.

[12] Ibid. p. 141

[13] Ibid. p. 217.

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