Romans had blamed Christianity for their Capitol’s fall to Visigoths in A.D. 410. Augustine’s response was to show Rome that what ailed her was not the onslaught of barbarians, but their own torrential downward rush into immorality. Romans needed not only to return to the cardinal virtues that once made them great, but to overcome their skepticism and immorality through repentance, and through a recognition of the “first things”—the gifts of nature, friendship, and the house and hearth, which is the seedbed of the city. Yet Biden’s “common objects of love” fail to point to any actual objects at all.
Delivered to an empty “Field of Flags” surrounded by 25,000 National Guardsmen, Joseph Biden’s inaugural address called for unity in a nation divided. The second Catholic to become president of the United States said that in order to “restore the soul and secure the future of America” we need “that most elusive of all things in a democracy: Unity. Unity.”
It’s a common theme of inaugural addresses. Yet as I write these words, most Virginia entrances to the District of Columbia are blocked by concrete barriers and snow plows, with state police and guardsmen vigilantly standing watch over a spectacle of fireworks that Van Jones says can’t be beat. Such were the contrasts of the day. Biden’s rhetorical doubling-down on unity reminded me less of Lincoln and more of the prophet Jeremiah, who warned us about those who say “Peace, peace” when there is no peace.
Yet Biden’s address was sincere. He promised his whole soul to the task of “bringing America together” against the common foes of “anger, resentment, hatred, extremism, lawlessness, violence, disease, joblessness, hopelessness.” But common foes such as racism, division, and (sotto voce) Trump, cannot produce real unity. Biden fashioned himself as a unifier, pledging that he would be “a President for all Americans” who will “fight as hard for those who did not support me as for those who did.” Yet what Biden fights for matters as much as for whom he fights.
When Biden quoted the Doctor of Grace, my phone lit up with sardonic quips from friends who knew my reading of Augustine’s City of God would differ from that of the 46th president. “Many centuries ago,” Biden intoned, “Saint Augustine, a saint of my church, wrote that a people was a multitude defined by the common objects of their love. What are the common objects we love that define us as Americans?”
It’s an ancient and excellent question. For Cicero, a commonwealth was nothing other than the good of the whole community, an association united by “a common sense of right and a community of interest.” The classical tradition recognized that every commonwealth depends on a kind of moral unity—an agreement about what is good, and shared activities ordered to a common end. Augustine takes up this classical definition in The City of God and runs with it. Cicero’s strict definition of commonwealth gives Augustine an opportunity to argue that insofar as a commonwealth depends on complete justice, it must render to God what is due him. And since we can only do that through the sacrifice of Christ, the Ciceronian ideal is only possible where God rules an obedient city through grace, and where there is a system of laws that accord with the love of God and neighbor.
Yet Augustine also finds another conceptual deficit in Cicero’s definition: It doesn’t give us any access to a standard by which we could morally judge better and worse kinds of commonwealths. “If, on the other hand, another definition than this is found for a ‘people’, for example, if one should say, ‘A people is the association of a multitude of rational beings united by a common agreement on the objects of their love,’ then it follows that to observe the character of a particular people we must examine the objects of its love” (The City of God 19.24).
This is the passage that Biden quotes in part. Biden recites Augustine’s alternative definition of a people, but not the bit about using the definition to observe and make moral judgments about the people’s objects of love. Instead, Biden rushes headlong into boilerplate inaugural address platitudes: “What are those common objects we love that define us as Americans? I think I know. Opportunity, security, liberty, dignity, respect, honor, and yes truth.”