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Deliver us from our necessities

After the Election media focus has now switched from the fresh personalities and style of the new Government to the difficulties that face it. These include the financial pressures created by heavy debt and inflation, the constraints imposed by pledges made before the election, an energy crisis, international conflicts and their effects on trade, and differences within the Party. Faced by such challenges the Government is unlikely to be able to fulfil its promises and its supporters’ hopes.

This failure raises the question of how we respond to the failure of government to deliver. It is easy to attribute it to cowardice, laziness, backsliding or treachery. These, of course, may be factors. It also may be worth reflecting, however, on the concept of ‘necessity’ developed by St Augustine, the fifth century Bishop and unillusioned observer of his society under pressures not unlike our own. It was a time when Rome had been sacked by the Visigoths, Augustine’s North Africa was also at risk, and the focus of Imperial policy had moved towards the East. Conservative Roman commentators blamed the Roman abandonment of the Gods and embrace of Christian faith for the collapse of Roman power.

In his monumental City of God Augustine argued that the qualities his opponents identified as central to the growth of Roman power had led to its decline. The desire for glory and for domination had bred unceasing war and the cult of personality reflected in making the Emperors Gods. Augustine argued that the search for God and the generous life that flow from faith in Christ are the only foundation for civic health. 

In his deconstruction of the culture of imperial Rome Augustine mocks the patriotic claim that Roman judges should be considered fortunate or happy. He claims that in judging suits brought by one person against another they always make their decisions in ignorance, relying on evidence that is uncertain. The Roman judicial system addressed this defect by torturing the witnesses to establish the truth. As at Guantanamo Bay, however, some witnesses would lie to incriminate others or even to incriminate themselves to avoid further torture. In Roman practice, Augustine says, this would mean that the judge

‘has tortured an innocent man to get to the truth and has killed him while still in ignorance. In view of this darkness that attends the life of human society, will our wise man take his seat on the judge’s bench, or will he not have the heart to do so? Obviously, he will sit for the claims of human society constrain him and draw him to this duty; and it is unthinkable to him that he should shirk it.’

 

'Augustine might applaud the sentiment but continue to be sceptical about projects to build lasting social change for the better. He might point to the history of reforms of the justice system and of the treatment of people who seem protection. It is a history of alternating reform and repression.'

 

Augustine concludes that a wise judge would not consider himself happy, but that ‘it is much more worthy of a human being when a man acknowledges this necessity as a mark of human wretchedness, when he hates that necessity in his own actions and when, if he has the wisdom of devotion, he cries out to God, “Deliver me from my necessities.”’

Augustine’s reference to necessities is helpful when we consider the challenge of governance in straitened times. Augustine’s argument that judges are necessary in society, that their judgments are necessarily affected by their ignorance, and that society must necessarily prescribe rules to minimise the effects of their ignorance, rests on his conviction that the institutions of society and their necessities are the product of a fallen world and stem ultimately from human sinfulness. Even outside this Christian framework, however, the appeal to necessities curbs the tendency to make the failures of government personal and to see them as someone’s, some defined one’s, fault. By depersonalising the obstacles to good governance the appeal to necessity helps to personalise people in government by revealing the limitations of their power. 

Governments today need to deal with war, sanctions and broken supply chains abroad, with the rigid requirements of changing constitutions, with the divided responsibilities between Federal and State administrations, with high inflation and low workers’ wages, and with differences among themselves about policy. Government ministers have limited means to adapt to and change these necessities. They need to govern within them. This acceptance of necessities discourages awe or admiration of their power but encourages sympathy for them in the difficulty of their task. We might want them to aspire to achieve more than is possible, but will expect them to do only what they can.

A present day conversation with Augustine about necessity will not stop there. To a modern reader his acceptance of judicial necessity will appear too despairing. Although judges certainly labour under a lack of knowledge – it is a commonplace that they deliver law and not justice – ignorance neither demands nor is remedied by recourse to torture. We might expect that judges today would not accept torture as a necessity but would condemn it as an irrational and intolerable breach of human dignity. If they work in a jurisdiction that mandated it, they should press for its repeal or resign. The practice of torture is not really a necessity but a social evil that needs to be reformed. As do other necessities.

To this Augustine might reply that necessities arise out of a flawed society shaped by flawed human beings but are essential to hold back the destruction of society by self-centred desire. From this it follows that attempts to reform or create new institutions of society are unlikely to be effective unless they begin with personal conversion. Without it movements for reform will also be infected by self-seeking and lead to sterner necessities.

The modern reader might rejoin that we are now more aware of the social construction of thought, and that what he sees as necessities are often based on opinions that can and must be resisted. We have a duty to change necessities into possibilities, and so to reform them. To change public opinion in a way conducive to reform has been the achievement of our age.

Allowed the last word in this conversation, Augustine might applaud the sentiment but continue to be sceptical about projects to build lasting social change for the better. He might point to the history of reforms of the justice system and of the treatment of people who seem protection. It is a history of alternating reform and repression. Lasting reform relies on the changing of hearts. That lies much deeper than changing public opinion.   

In the meantime, of course, the outcome of the conversation will not change the necessities the Government ministers confront. Augustine would suggest that they need our prayer. Even if we believe prayer to be unavailing they call for our empathy.

 

 

 


 

Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Judge's gavel. (Tingey Law Firm / Unsplash)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, AusPol, St Augustine, Law, Government

 

 

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