On Ethics, Politics and Psychology in the Twenty-First Century

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John M. Rist
Reading Augustine
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , November
     192 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


If Augustine could be reincarnated in the 21st-century West and asked to confront our intellectual and sub-intellectual world, how would he develop his thought without betraying his own original insights while also aware of the philosophical, scientific, and general cultural activity that has taken place between his time and ours? This is the question that John Rist tackles in his book Reading Augustine: On Ethics, Politics and Psychology in the Twenty-First Century. Rist argues at the beginning of the book that Augustine would definitely work toward replacing “secular idols (whether or not worshipped by quisling theologians) by something surprisingly like the thoughtful ‘theological’ Christianity he preached even to the uneducated in the early fifth-century North African city of Hippo” (12). In attempting to present Augustine’s “current” views, Rist concedes first that Augustine would acknowledge “a number of errors” he himself has made in his early life. Rist also assumes that reincarnated Augustine (“our Augustine,” as he calls him) would most likely do so again in the 21st century. Rist thus cautions his readers that what has been presented in this book is his own critical interpretation and expansion of Augustine’s original views that he believes Augustine would defend today. 

The first two chapters lay out Augustine’s key theological principles and ethical ideas such as “truth,” “love,” “sin,” and “self,” among others. According to Rist, Augustine was not interested in constructing a “watertight philosophical system”; he was not a systemic thinker in the strict sense. He was rather an empirical thinker attempting to uncover truth and reality. “The experience itself—with the empirically acquired data—comes first, and philosophical or theological explanations or constructions may follow” (17). As is widely accepted, Augustine sympathizes with Plato, but he goes further: not only appropriating but also correcting Plato’s philosophical ideas (such as love) on his theological ground. Rist emphasizes that Augustine’s understanding of human problems (such as sin) is truly original, and it is still very much relevant to today’s neoliberal and postmodern world. It is important to note that “Augustine never taught that mankind is totally corrupt as a result of the fall” (27). Humanity’s real and perennial problem is that “our innate capacity for love of God and the Good has been severely damaged” (27). Men and women in the 21st century, just like those in 5th century, suffer not only from an ignorance of God but also from a lack of willpower to do the right thing. As for the idea of self, Rist holds that our Augustine finds two problematic views in contemporary Western society: “atomic” self that may act “as a kind of mini-creator or mini-god” and “scientific” self that regards individuals as “statistics.” The reduction of individuals to “economic or consumer cogs” is indeed a serious moral challenge we are witnessing in today’s increasingly neoliberalized world. According to Rist, our Augustine helps us see that without God’s aid, we cannot resolve this problem due to the human condition: that “we can injure but cannot cure ourselves” (47).

In the remaining chapters (chapters 3 to 9), Rist attempts to address some of the key ethical, political, and psychological issues of the 21st century,  including the Kantian notion of rational autonomy, liberal democracy, utilitarian consequentialism, rights theory, relativism, nihilism, and so on. Rist argues that our Augustine will be critical of modern philosophical efforts to construct moral theories based on our rational capacity and free will because they fail to consider seriously the “evil inheritance of our nature” for which we are all responsible as members of the human race (65). In this respect, Rist maintains that the fact that we can be aware of moral “ought” as well as ethical responsibility for ourselves and for others should be regarded as our need for dependence, rather than as our claim of moral independence. Rist continues to write that we are “like children who need ‘discipline’ (including punishment) to overcome their natural weaknesses” (65). He then goes further to articulate Augustine’s anti-liberal stance. As Rist reasons, our Augustine will find that liberalism cannot offer “a panacea for our political ills” due to its lack of “metaphysical foundation.” Rist summarizes Augustine’s anti-liberalism as follows: “Augustine will agree with Nietzsche that a liberal society risks either degenerating into populism, or will be driven by envy and a radical hostility to any kind of authority” (99).

Rist’s Reading Augustine will be a helpful text for those who are interested in how to reinterpret him in today’s world. Readers will also find that Rist is passionate about reviving Augustine’s theology and ethics against the inundating challenges of neoliberalism. Rist is definitely engaged not only in reinterpreting Augustine’s multi-layered theological insights and ethical guidelines but also in applying his theological visions and ethical ideas to our society. Rist’s unspecified notion of “our Augustine,” however, may entail some controversial or even divisive reactions from his readers. Reading his book, I was not sure why our Augustine would be more interested in the issues Rist identifies—Kantian autonomy, utilitarian consequentialism, political liberalism, rights theory, relativism, and nihilism—rather than others. Rist’s Augustine remains silent on such issues as diversity (rather than Kantian autonomy), structural injustice (rather than utilitarian consequentialism), racial politics (rather than liberal democracy), and intersectionality (rather than rights theory) in outlining justice. Rist’s Augustine also remains silent on pressing social justice issues such as the global migration crisis, racial and gender inequality, planetary environmental crisis, and so on. Of course, one cannot deal with all social, political, or psychological issues in one book. However, Rist’s identification of our Augustine seems to be in need of further justification and explication. If, as Rist argues, “justice-based theories [such as rights], in comparison with virtue-theories, must be defective, even, in and of themselves, unworthy of human respect and unquestionably an inadequate foundation for ethics” (124), I am afraid that Rist’s Augustine may not endorse the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ilsup Ahn is Professor of Philosophy and Global Ethics at North Park University.

Date of Review: 
September 27, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John M. Rist is Professor Emeritus of Classics and Philosophy at the University of Toronto, Canada. He has published extensively on the Presocratics, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus and Neoplatonism, as well as Ethics, Patristics and Augustine. He is the author of fifteen books, including Real Ethics: Reconsidering the Foundations of Morality (Cambridge University Press, 2001), What is Truth? From the Academy to the Vatican (Cambridge University Press, 2008) and Plato's Moral Philosophy. The Discovery of the Presuppositions of Ethics (The Catholic University of America Press, 2012)



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