Augustine on Virtue and Greatness

What makes a nation great? This is the core question we are faced with every presidential election. The party out of power claims that we are not great, and only they know how to make us great. The party in power claims that we are mostly great, and only they know how to make us even greater. After enough of these cycles, we may begin to believe that neither party has a full and rich understanding of greatness, much less a clear path to achieve greatness.

The greatest misunderstanding we Americans make about greatness is its object. True greatness is not a measure of accomplishment, but of virtue. A people may achieve many things, but absent justice, prudence, temperance, fortitude, faith, hope, and love, those achievements are hollow. It is virtue that enables achievement, giving a people the inner communal strength to persevere through tremendous difficulty and opposition. But where virtue is forsaken, the end is near.

In his book, The City of God, Augustine refutes the belief that mass conversion to Christianity led to the destruction of Rome. In the aftermath of the sack of the Eternal City, the critics of Christianity laid the blame at the feet of the Church and its extermination of the worship of the Roman gods. Augustine moves at a leisurely pace as he confronts, and demolishes, these assertions.

His most compelling line of argument draws upon political and philosophical teaching of ancient Rome. The real downfall of Rome, he argues, came not from Christianity, but from the luxury and avarice afforded by prosperity. Success breeds greed and lust, which rot the moral heart of a people. Augustine lays into his Roman critics, “For certainly your desire for peace, and prosperity, and plenty is not prompted by any purpose of using these blessings honestly, that is to say, with moderation, sobriety, temperance, and piety; for your purpose rather is to run riot in an endless variety of sottish pleasures, and thus to generate from your prosperity a moral pestilence which will prove a thousandfold more disastrous than the fiercest enemies.” The greatest threat to any people is not the strength or cunning of its enemies, but the grip its luxuries hold on its collective imagination and desire.

This is a lesson for America. We talk about the greatness of our nation, but our collective imagination is so withered, our desire so thin, that we can only comprehend greatness in terms of the luxury our prosperity affords us. We have no imaginative categories for the greatness of virtue, for the power of justice, prudence, temperance, and fortitude to forge a greatness of spirit capable of resisting both the fiercest enemies and the most delectable luxuries. We have sold our morality for luxury, and foolishly believe greatness is found along the path of ever-increasing prosperity. Augustine, though speaking to angry Romans, has us dead to rights when says, “Depraved by good fortune, and not chastened by adversity, what you desire in the restoration of a peaceful and secure state, is not the tranquility of the commonwealth, but the impunity of your own vicious luxury.”

By forsaking public virtue, we have cut ourselves off from that chastening force which guides a people with wisdom. A nation is great because it is rich in virtue, not fat in accomplishments. Virtue enables accomplishment and achievement, but in our prosperity we have thrown contempt and scorn on both the classic and Christian virtues. But don’t be fooled, America can only be as great as its leaders are virtuous.

The question for us in this or any election cycle is the matter of restoring or elevating virtue in the American public square. We all recognize that a politician’s campaign promises are as valuable as the paper they are printed on, and that a party’s platform is all but irrelevant to what will actually be accomplished or implemented in their candidate’s term. By restoring or elevating virtue in the public consciousness, we become a better people. The candidate who can truly make a difference in the world is the one who possesses those ancient, yet eternal, virtues.

The source of true virtue, according to Augustine, is the “true worship of the true God.” This is so because God himself is the greatest good that any person could hope to find. “For there is no true virtue except that which is directed towards that end in which is the highest and ultimate good of man.” The Creator of man, the one who is most clearly revealed in Jesus Christ, has in mind for humanity only its highest good – to be restored to its rightful place as the wise and just rulers of the earth. Therefore, “there could be nothing more fortunate for human affairs than that, by the mercy of God, they who are endowed with true piety of life, if they have the skill for ruling people, should also have the power.”

And yet, here we are. “Morality has perished through poverty of great men.” And I would add, through the pollution of the church’s witness with political ends. If anyone should have been proclaiming that greatness is a matter of virtue and character, not of achievement and prosperity, it should have been the Church. But we have become the religious consumers of a larger Consumerism, the moral luxuriants awash in a sea of avarice. Virtue is absent because its guardians have neglected their posts, skipping off to the Dionysian orgy, imbibing on the Great Harlot’s wine, preaching the Gospel of Jezebel. Judgment begins with the people of God, and because our sin has been flaunted so publicly, our judgment is exposed for all to see.

The Church must return to the pursuit of greatness, which is truly the pursuit of virtue. We must renounce the idols of power and throw ourselves at the foot of the cross, begging forgiveness for our adultery. We must become men and women who are defined, not by politics or platforms, but by justice, wisdom, self-control, courage, Christ-centered faith, resurrection hope, and cross-shaped love.

Let me be clear: This is the only way forward. The reenergized pursuit of virtue and the renunciation of the idols of power are our only option. There is nothing for the people of God in the City of the World. The policies and appointments of politicians are meaningless when we have sold our birthright as the apostles and prophets of Jesus the King. The Gospel is our power. The universe our inheritance. All else pales in comparison to that which awaits us on the other side of our resurrection.

This glorious gift gives us the freedom to pursue the virtuous life without fear. In fact, the Gospel is the key that unlocks the life of virtue. The faith, hope, and love of Jesus Christ enable me to pursue a life of justice, wisdom, self-control, and courage without concern for the opinions or insults of the wider society, which is bent toward luxury and vice. We have, in this election, both judgment and gift. We have been given the opportunity to pursue greatness unencumbered by political commitments. Let us embrace the judgment of God upon our idols of power, and take full advantage of the opportunity his judgment affords us to pursue lives of virtue and true greatness.