Augustine 2020: The Pursuit of Property, I Mean, Happiness
Updated: Sep 26, 2022
In our last post, we considered Augustine’s varied response to imperial persecution of a heretical sect known as the Donatists . In today’s #Augustine2020 installment, we will consider another work in which Augustine defends the government’s decision to confiscate property from the Donatists. However, we will not focus on Augustine’s defense of the imperial treatment of the Donatists, but on several comments Augustine makes on property. In one of his sermons, Augustine asks several fascinating questions about possessions, specifically, by what right does anyone own property?
Augustine poses two possible answers: we own property either by divine right or human right. Divine right is found in Scripture whereas a human right is based on “the laws of the king” . To determine whether or not we have property by divine right, Augustine turns to Scripture, which provides a straightforward answer to whom this world belongs: “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it” . Augustine rules out a divine right to property: “God made the poor and the rich from the one clay, and the one earth supports both the poor and the rich” .
Augustine concludes that property is established by human right. The law of kings distributes property and determines to whom property belongs. The kings and governments have the power to distribute human rights because it was granted to them by God. “God has distributed these same human rights to the human race through the emperors and kings of the world” . Augustine then argues that, because property is distributed by kings, it can be taken by kings. The government, then, has the right to decide whether or not the Donatists ought to possess property and can grant or deny them that right through the law .
Augustine’s thought stands in stark contrast to John Locke, an influential thinker whose ideas informed our nation’s founding documents. Locke taught that the universal law of reason defended each individual’s life, health, and property. Each individual has a right to property in his body, owed to him because of the work done with his own hands. The job of the government is not to distribute this property, but to defend the man’s property . In Augustine’s terms, this is not a human right. If each individual has an innate, natural right to property owed to him, it is a transcendent right, a divine right, though Locke does not himself use that language, nor is he thinking in the same terms as Augustine.
The benefit of Locke’s thought has been evidenced in American history: governments do not have the right to act as they please but act according to a transcendent law and their task is to administer and protect that law. Augustine agrees. Justice is defined by God and exemplified in the reign of Christ. Human governments are to accord with that justice or else stand condemned before Christ’s Kingdom. The issue is are possessions or property one of those rights? Locke says yes while Augustine says no.
In light of the rest of Augustine’s thought as we have outlined it, I believe we need to say that possessions and property are temporal goods, goods which make life in the earthly city more peaceful when protected and more comfortable, which afford us the luxury of generously caring for those who have been ostracized from the economy, to support the life and worship of the church, and provide us the luxury of contemplating the goodness of God. However, it is not an ultimate good and if we dedicate our lives to accruing possessions and property, we have turned away from the supreme good. Our loves have been disordered and we are in danger of developing the defect of greed which impedes our ability to love God and our neighbor, to seek the good, and turns us towards the supreme evil. If we orient our lives around created goods that cannot themselves endure without the life-giving God, our existence will slowly become undone. In light of this, I think we can affirm the limits Locke places on government while also maintain the limits Augustine placed on property. What we have are good gifts from God, administered by the law of our land, laws Christians wish to make as just as possible, and we use these gifts to worship our Creator and love our neighbors.
 See Scott Carr, Jr. “Augustine 2020: The One Augustine Couldn't Figure Out,” November 6, 2020, https://www.reimaginefaith.org/post/augustine-2020-the-one-augustine-couldn-t-figure-out.
 Augustine, Augustine: Political Writings, trans. Michael W. Tkacz and Douglas Kries (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994), p. 248.
 Psalm 24:1 NRSV.
 Augustine, p. 248.
 Ibid. p. 249.
 Jim Powell, “John Locke: Natural Rights to Life, Liberty, and Property: Jim Powell,” Foundation for Economic Education (Foundation for Economic Education, August 1, 1996), https://fee.org/articles/john-locke-natural-rights-to-life-liberty-and-property/.