St Augustine in the Anthropocene

In our contemporary world, dangers frequently come not from external enemies but from our own behaviour. To provide moral guidance on these Anthropocene dangers and help overcome the externalisation of threat, Ruairidh Brown looks back through time to St Augustine

Traditionally, the question of how to ‘secure’ our political communities has focused on identifying and eliminating external threats. Indeed, Carl Schmitt characterises politics itself as being about identifying and eliminating enemies that threaten a community’s way of life.

How to secure our political communities? Traditionally, answers have involved identifying and eliminating external threats

However, many of the threats we face in the twenty-first century challenge us to reconsider this way of thinking about our political communities and the dangers that threaten them. The dangers we face do not always come from external ‘others’. Instead, they are products of our own behaviour.

Climate emergency

This is most notable in the case of anthropogenic climate change. 'The Anthropocene' is a term increasingly used to define our current planetary epoch. It signifies that humans have become the dominant force in shaping the planet’s bio-geophysical composition and processes.

The dangers of the climate emergency are a result of human behaviour. This emergency is anthropogenic, with its origin in our own choices and actions.

This poses a challenge to how we traditionally think about securing our communities. The climate emergency requires us not to identify and eliminate an enemy force. Instead, we must reflect inwards and change our own behaviour. We need protection not from ‘the other’ but from ourselves.

The COVID-19 pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic revealed the difficulty of getting beyond the logic of 'enemy identification.' Discourse and action followed along, and entrenched, existing friend-enemy contour lines. Notably, the pandemic became a new contention in the geopolitical struggle between the United States and China.

The supply of vaccinations became overshadowed by nationalist politics. At the domestic level, partisan politics frequently shaped the decision to accept a vaccine.

Such behaviours reveal how difficult it is for us to get beyond the paradigm of enmity and human-to-human conflict, and look inwards to both the damage we cause ourselves and how we might address this. However, St Augustine could help us make this leap to confront our own actions and choices.

Confronting evil

In the early 2000s, Jean Bethke Elshtain also looked to Augustine for moral and political guidance. Her search, however, was for guidance in how to approach the ‘evil’ of Islamic fundamentalism, which she claimed threatened ‘the sleep of the world wherever it is established’. She concludes that the United States had the power to meet this ‘evil’, and thus also the responsibility to do so. Its War on Terror was, as a result, ‘just’.

For Elshtain, Augustine was important because he drew attention to the existence of evil in the world. She maintained that this idea had been exorcised from contemporary political language.

Indeed, Elshtain aligned Augustine with the cultural phenomenon of Harry Potter, a series she claimed helped children imagine and fight back against evil. Augustine and Potter demonstrated the courage to name evil and respond to it, a necessary courage if we are to successfully defend our world.

Harry Potter versus The Lord of the Rings

One of the problems with Elshtain’s use of Augustine and ‘evil’ is that she falls back into the framework of externalising it. Augustine taught that evil has no independent existence but comes from our own choices, thus rejecting Manichaeism. Elshtain recognises this, but still focusses on how to combat ‘those who go over to the dark side’. As a result, she falls back into the friend-enemy logic of fighting an external ‘evil other’ instead of checking our own behaviour.

Responding to Elshtain, Nicholas Rengger recommends not Harry Potter but The Lord of the Rings. He highlights Gandalf’s refusal to take the One Ring. In doing so, he alleges that the lesson from Tolkien is not about recognising and fighting evil. Rather, it is limiting our own ambition and desires when tempted by power, even when the temptation is driven by a desire to do good.

Looking inward

Such a lesson aligns with the heart of Augustine's work, as it prompts inward reflection on our own choices. Evil, for Augustine, is not an external force. It has no ontological independence. Evil is, instead, the absence of good. It is the result of humanity’s willing itself away from God and the negation of his goodness that follows.

Evil, for Augustine, is not an external force. Instead, it comes from our own choices, and cannot be fought in the person of an external other

This understanding was not only key to Augustine’s teachings but also his own personal struggles. This is nowhere better illustrated than in his reflections on stealing pears as a youth. In his Confessions, Augustine recounts robbing a pear tree only to dump his loot out to the ‘hogs’.

He concludes from this that he committed the robbery not out of desire for the pears but because they were forbidden. He was motivated by a desire to be bad. This gives him evidence that evil comes from within: ‘I was being gratuitously wanton, having no inducement to evil but the evil itself. It was foul, and I loved it.’ (Chapter IV)

The real struggle in this world is not with an evil enemy ‘other’. It is with the evil that we may bring about through our own choices.

Evil in the Anthropocene

The climate emergency and the resultant prospect of ‘catastrophic harm to health that will be impossible to reverse’ is an ‘evil’ we would likely all wish to avoid. Arguably, it is the greatest ‘evil’ our world faces today.

The climate emergency is, arguably, the greatest evil we face today. But it is not the doing of those who have turned to the dark side

But it is crucial that we recognise that this is not the doing of those who have ‘turned to the dark side’. This ‘evil’ is the product of our behaviour. It is a product of the choices we make everyday. In asking us to reflect inwards on our own choices and actions, and the ‘evil’ they may contribute to, Augustine can prove an invaluable moral guide in the Anthropocene.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Ruairidh Brown
Ruairidh Brown
Head of Politics and International Relations, Forward College, Lisbon

Ruairidh currently teaches International Political Theory and International Relations at Forward’s Lisbon Campus.

Before teaching at Forward, Ruairidh taught International Studies in mainland China, where he received the University of Nottingham’s Lord Dearing Award for outstanding contributions to teaching and learning in 2019.

He received his PhD from the University of St Andrews in 2017.

Ruairidh has researched and published on such topics as hermeneutics, political obligation, and the philosophy of friendship.

Political Encounters: A Hermeneutic Inquiry Into the Situation of Political Obligation
Springer, 2019

Covid-19 and International Political Theory by Ruairidh Brown

COVID-19 and International Political Theory: Assessing the Potential for Normative Shift
Springer, 2022

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