ST. AUGUSTINE: REMOVE JUSTICE, AND WHAT ARE KINGDOMS BUT GANGS OF CRIMINALS ON A LARGE SCALE? القديس أغستينوس: من غير العدالة، الدول عصابات إجرامية على نطاق واسع
Remove justice, and what are kingdoms but gangs of criminals on a large scale? What are criminal gangs but petty kingdoms? A gang is a group of men under the command of a leader, bound by a compact of association, in which the plunder is divided according to an agreed convention.
If this villainy wins so many recruits from the ranks of the demoralized that it acquires territory, establishes a base, captures cities and subdues peoples, it then openly arrogates to itself the title of kingdom, which is conferred on it in the eyes of the world, not by the renouncing of aggression but by the attainment of impunity.
For it was a witty and truthful rejoinder which was given by a captured pirate to Alexander the Great. The king asked the fellow, “What is your idea, in infesting the sea?” And the pirate answered, with uninhibited insolence, “The same as yours, in infesting the earth! But because I do it with a tiny craft, I’m called a pirate; because you have a mighty navy, you’re called an emperor.”
St. Augustine, Concerning the City of God Against the Pagans (H. Bettenson, Tr.), Book IV, Ch. 4.
St. Augustine (354-430), who was the Bishop of Hippo, now Annaba in Algeria, is one of Christianity’s great theologian and philosopher. The Coptic nationalists can find plenty of his political and social views which are relevant to the modern age and to their struggle, and which can enrich their understandings of important topics such as justice, the natural law, the just war, etc. As J. Mark Mattox says, “Augustine, more than any other figure of late antiquity, stands at the intellectual intersection of Christianity, philosophy, and politics…As a philosopher, he situates his arguments against the backdrop of Greek philosophy in the Platonic tradition, particularly as formulated by the Neo-Platonists of Alexandria. As a prominent Roman citizen, he understands the Roman Empire to be divinely-ordained medium through which the truths of Christianity are to be both spread and safeguarded.”[i]
Justice was seen by St. Augustine as the crucial distinction between ideal political states and non-ideal political states. No earthly state can claim to possess true justice, but only some relative justice by which one state is more just than another.[ii] St. Augustine criticises both the Greek and the Roman Empires. Had he lived to witness the Arab/Islamic Empire, and its bloody expansion and despotic lordship over other countries and nations, there is no doubt in my mind that he would have preserved for it his harshest criticism.
His notion of justice is the same as the Platonic notion of justice, a notion which was accepted by the Church Fathers, and the main stream of philosophers of his day. Justice to him is “to give every man his due”. So ‘remove (this) justice, and what are kingdoms but gangs of criminals on a large scale?’ Where there is no justice, he says, there is no commonwealth.[iii] And it seems that there is no more sincere advice or dire warning he could give to our present Egyptian government than this.
About this notion of justice we will return later.