Justice as Defined by Augustine and Aristotle

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Justice as Defined by Augustine and Aristotle

“Justice removed, then, what are kingdoms but great bands of robbers?” (Augustine, The City of God against the Pagans, p. 147[1]). Augustine makes quite a claim here. The presence or absence of “justice,” he implies, can make or break a great kingdom. What is this justice that Augustine speaks of? Is it the philosopher kings that define Plato’s “just city[2],” or perhaps Aristotle’s “good life[3]”? Augustine approaches the challenge of defining justice in a different, but not necessarily contradictory way, than his predecessors. In The City of God against the Pagans, man’s relationship with justice is only secondary; for Augustine, justice is about God.

The title of his book alone reveals that Augustine is deeply religious. Rarely in City of God is there a discussion that does not have divine elements or references, and his discussion of justice is no exception. For Augustine, justice seems to be the combination of two things: recognition by man of his place in the world below God, and strict (or as strict as possible by a mortal) observance of God’s laws. The second part is actually the easier one of the two to examine. Man is simply supposed to follow the teachings professed in Christianity’s religious texts to the best of his ability. The interpretation of the correct ways to follow those laws is another matter, but one that Augustine pays little attention to. Augustine’s attention is focused rather on man’s recognition of his place below God, and in a greater sense, on man’s respect for God. “…impeded by [man’s] own humility…especially when the divine providence justly resisted their pride, so that it might show by comparison with them that i...

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...ry opinion would favor Aristotle, and I am inclined to agree. Aristotle’s secular, capitalist-tolerant view seems like it would jive more with today’s society than would Augustine’s deeply religious near-asceticism. In America, we live in a world of material possessions and manage to live better than citizens of any other nation, and most would agree we are not living in a world of sin or on the edge of turmoil. Then again, some would. Personally, I envision justice as a combination between ambition and moderation—right down Aristotle’s alley. In addition, I appreciate Aristotle’s optimism and faith in us mortals, optimism not as present in Augustine’s vision.

[1] Augustine. The City of God against the Pagans. Trans. R. W. Dyson. Cambridge, 1998.

[2] Plato’s Republic

[3] Aristotle’s Politics

[4] Aristotle. Politics. Trans. Ernest Barker. Oxford: 1995.
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