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Augustinian Studies

Volume 48, Issue 1/2, 2017

Reconsiderations Conference V

Michael Lamb
Pages 119-159
DOI: 10.5840/augstudies201792636

Augustine and Republican Liberty
Contextualizing Coercion

One of the most controversial aspects of Augustine’s political thought is his use of imperial power to coerce religious dissenters. While scholars have sought to situate Augustine’s justifications of coercion within his historical, social, and political contexts, even the most helpful approaches do not alleviate concerns that Augustine’s defense of coercion violates individual liberty. This paper argues that one reason for this is that many defenders and detractors tend to view Augustine’s defense through a largely liberal lens, assuming a modern conception of liberty and legitimacy that is alien to his late antique context. In contrast, this paper highlights how Augustine appropriates republican principles from his Roman predecessors to justify coercion and place limits on its use. In particular, it focuses on Augustine’s commitments to: (1) liberty as non-domination; (2) legitimate authority and the rule of law as constraints on arbitrary power; and (3) contestability, publicity, and immanent critique as means of preventing domination and holding power accountable. By showing how the content and form of Augustine’s reasoning align with republican principles, this paper suggests that his defense of coercion appears less inimical to liberty in his Roman context than his modern interpreters typically assume. The paper concludes by considering how this republican approach might help to preserve liberty and prevent domination in our own time.

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