Augustine and the Problem of Power

Essays and Lectures of Charles Norris Cochrane

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Charles Norris Cochrane
David Beer
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Wipf & Stock Publishers
    , October
     266 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This collection of lectures, delivered at Yale in 1945, is completed by other unpublished notes and two articles previously published in the University of Toronto Quarterly. The book is a work of devotion, and David Beer’s intention is not only to make the development of Charles Norris Cochrane’s thought after the publication of Christianity and Classical Culture (Clarendon Press, 1940) known, but also to make it emerge from “undeserved neglect” (2). To better argue for Cochrane’s importance and the originality of the Yale lectures, a few pages of the editor’s introduction could have been allocated to the scholarship on Augustine’s political theology in the 20th century. The editor insists that Cochrane’s work presents Augustinian political philosophy as “a helpful corrective to the distortions of contemporary ideologies,” especially those that had arisen during and between the two great wars (4). It takes nothing away from the originality of Cochrane’s work to acknowledge that most scholars of ancient Christianity of that century did so. Some are mentioned (Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man: A Christian Interpretation, vol. 1: Human Nature, Scribner’s, 1941; Étienne Gilson, L’esprit de la philosophie médiévale: 2ème série, Vrin, 1932), but most are not even in the bibliography provided by the editor (Gustave Combès, La doctrine politique de saint Augustin, Plon, 1927; Henri-Xavier Arquillière, L’augustinisme politique: essai sur la formation des théories politiques du Moyen âge, Vrin, 1933; Henri-Irénée Marrou, Augustin et la fin de la culture antique, Bibliothèque de l’École française de Rome, 1949; and Robert A. Markus, Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of Saint Augustine, Cambridge University Press, 1972). Like Cochrane, they all studied Augustine to find correctives to the social and political climate of the century, as evidenced by a recent history of political Augustinianism (Michael J. S. Bruno, Political Augustinianism: Modern Interpretations of Augustine’s Political Thought, Fortress Press, 2014). Even a brief status quaestionis would have helped measure Cochrane’s contribution to this dialogue.

The first chapter consists of the four Yale lectures, in which Cochrane explores Augustine’s explanation of what his contemporaries saw as Rome’s weakening political structure and its waning power. Cochrane first argued for the social significance of the gospel for a classically bred political mind and concluded that Augustine could only reckon that the ideal of classical political philosophy was meant to fail because it sought to create in this world a peace only possible in heaven. On this ground, Cochrane then develops the implication of Augustine’s theology of grace and human will for worldly politics in the second lecture. In the third lecture, he discusses the necessity for Christians to adopt a renewed comprehension of nature/creation in order to strive for a perfect form of commonwealth. This new perspective on the world entailed a change in the way late antique authors understood history and, with his fourth lecture, Cochrane completed a panorama of how Augustine sowed the seeds of a political philosophy that could not have developed outside of Christianity.

The Yale lectures are complemented by published articles and unpublished notes developing the conception of power in antiquity (2: The Latin Spirit in Literature, 103-118, despite its title, explores “the nature of the civic bond as it was apprehended by the Romans” [111]; 3: PaxRomana, 134-47; 4: Revolution: Caesarism, 148-65). The last chapters analyze landmark works on power, of the Renaissance (5: Niccolò Machiavelli, 166-209) and the Modern era (6: The Mind of Edward Gibbon, 210-47). While none of these chapters deals with Augustine’s political thought, chapters 2 to 4 explain the Roman political background whence Augustine came  to give perspective to the Yale lectures. Chapters 5 and 6 highlight the political and philosophical contexts of two Western thinkers who, deems Cochrane, were too often misunderstood. The Yale lectures and the last two chapters, in this reviewer’s mind, better highlight Cochrane’s ability to study the implications of the intellectual, social, or political background on an author’s thought. As for the chapters that are more concerned with classical antiquity, they cause a certain amount of annoyance to a reader trained as a classicist with specialty in late antiquity. Because Cochrane (and the editor) adopts the Christian late antique view of classical culture, and the prejudices it entails, there was a fair amount of teeth gnashing upon reading judgements such as “the inevitable failure of classicism” (15) or the “characteristic vice of Greek speculation” (37), to cite but these examples.

The editor added references for citations to works, ancient and modern, where Cochrane had not provided any (ix). While making Cochrane’s unpublished works is commendable, it would have been a worthy task to also add explanatory notes on classical notions, for his writing is not without a certain generalization (not to say approximation). A random example will illustrate the danger of hastiness in expression: consider a statement such as “Yet, with all their fighting, the Romans never exhibited themselves merely as homicidal maniacs; and, despite the slogan vae victis, their history was marked by an astonishing mitigation of the ancient rules of war” (142). Such a sweeping judgement gives to understand that Romans shrewdly contained by rules the ancients’ maniac passion for homicide, except when they yelled their slogan “woe to the vanquished,” and that this restraint should surprise us. In fact, the Romans justified war through an elaborate ritual to ensure their offensive was pronounced just by the gods, therefore, in their view, war had nothing in common with homicide. Moreover, vae victisis not a Roman “slogan,” but the derisive answer of a victorious Gallic leader, reported by the historian Livy in order to underscore for his reader the difference between tribal greed (Brennus was asking for gold, see Livy 5.48) and the Roman virtue of moderation. For moderatiowas one of the qualities with which the Roman people painted itself (see Livy 1.28). This example may seem—and is indeed—anecdotic. However, it illustrates how complementary notes would have aptly supplemented Cochrane’s papers, for the reader could better measure the departure from the classical point of view (war can be just, and Roman rule is moderate) in Christian thought (war is homicide and worldly rule can only be unjust).

This review opened with the acknowledgement that this book is a work of devotion, and transcription of handwritten notes to make them available to the public certainly is a work of love, and an ungratifying one. Therefore the “small army of student workers” (viii) hired to do so cannot be blamed for the insufficient proof-reading that mars the pages with bizarre Latin names (Aurmianus for Ammianus, 85, Trajaro for Trajan, 199), very frequent incorrect accents and aspirations in the Greek (passim), or auto-correct typos in the Latin (“the populous,” for populus, 139). It is sad that limits of time due to constraints of funding (from what we can gather in the acknowledgements, vii-viii) did not do justice to the devotion for Cochrane’s work that brought it to light.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Marie-Pierre Bussières is Associate Professor in the Department of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Ottawa.

Date of Review: 
November 30, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Charles Norris Cochrane (1889–1945) was Professor of Roman History at University College, University of Toronto. He was the author of Thucydides and Science of History (1929) and Christianity and Classical Culture: A Study of Thought and Action from Augustus to Augustine (1940).

David Beer is Assoicate Professor of Political Science at Malone University. He is a graduate of Georgetown University and Catholic University of America.

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